James Wilhoit found Will Reichard — since known to him as the Baby-Faced Assassin — when Reichard was more baby-faced than he is now.

Wilhoit is head of the Wilhoit Kicking Academy and a nationally renowned private kicking coach, a position of importance in the kicking community. The specialist community is a small and tight-knit one, so the highly trained specialist coaches such as Wilhoit, Chris Sailer and Jamie Kohl are more important in their field than any other position in football. Their influential positions in the community makes it more likely for them to find elite talent early than most collegiate coaching staffs.

Through that community, Wilhoit found Reichard as a middle schooler on Instagram.

“I contacted him and told him, ‘I think you have the talent to be a pretty good kicker,’” Wilhoit said. “He and his dad drove to Nashville to train with me and I could tell he was going to be special.”

Since then, Reichard has gone from, “just a little guy kicking,” to the next in line of highly-rated kickers trying to fix Alabama’s long-lasting kicking problem. The freshman from Hoover is off to a good start, successful from 48 and 49 yards in his first home game, and will soon get another first: a road game, Saturday at South Carolina. Many kickers have tried to break the so-called Bama Kickers curse in what has otherwise been a dominant era, and Wilhoit believes Reichard is the one to solve it.

“He’s embraced it,” Wilhoit said. “He never really shied away from wanting to be the best.”

Starting with the middle schooler Wilhoit found on Instagram, Reichard was always the most driven prospect of his class.

From that initial conversation, Reichard would go from Hoover to Nashville four or five times per year to train with Wilhoit. Wilhoit never doubted Reichard’s ability to kick in college, given the natural ball-striking ability and athleticism; where in the college ranks Reichard would land was ultimately up to how his body matured, if strength came with his high school years.

With Reichard, a matter of physical baseline was the only variable. The mindset was never in question.

“The other thing you could tell about him is he had such a desire to be great. His attention to detail was different than almost every other kid I’ve trained,” Wilhoit said. “The questions that he asked. When you work with a lot of guys, you’re always fixing the same things. He’s the kind of guy where you tell him something, he figures it out and you can move on to making him better at something else. A lot of guys get stunted in their growth because they’re constantly repeating the same things. You really didn’t have to repeat things: you told him something and he was determined. You didn’t have to know he was practicing, you could see it in his improvement over time.”

Reichard also had the mental toughness required for the position. As a sophomore he was battling for the Hoover High School starting position with Barrett Pickering — who started for Nebraska as a freshman — when he tore his ACL. He came back from that injury well enough to earn the scholarship offer he took from Alabama among other prominent suitors, including Georgia and Oregon.

It’s possible Reichard would need every bit of that mental strength to weather the storm that has been UA place kicking of late, of having the weight of years of kicking woes placed on his shoulders. Cade Foster (Class of 2010), Adam Griffith (2012) and Joseph Bulovas (2017) all chose UA as nationally heralded kickers and all supposed to be the ones that defied the trend. Granted, it’s possible that now, Alabama is more prepared for a top-line kicker than other points in the Nick Saban era.

“I think there had been a culture of those guys kicking too much, there had not been a really good management of kickers,” Wilhoit said. “I think that’s one thing that’s really been fixed with (special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Jeff) Banks as the special teams coordinator, that’s a big upgrade. He’s one of the best in the country as a special teams coach who knows kickers, understands them. He’s not going to break down their mechanics, but he knows how to put them in a position to be successful.

“The biggest thing to understand is it’s just like a pitcher in baseball. There’s this mentality with every other position that if you’re tired, you just work through it: you work harder, you push through it. With kicking, it’s the same thing as pitching: you don’t tell the pitcher who’s thrown 120 pitches to suck it up and give another 50. You know how many pitches is too many pitches and you try to get them to maximize what they’re best at.”

Saban said of Banks’ impact: “I think it’s really important. I think Jeff does a really good job with our special teams; I also think he does a great job with our specialists. I think those guys have made a significant amount of improvement. At times we haven’t performed as well in the games as we’re capable of, but it’s early and these guys are young so hopefully we’ll develop a little more consistency in the way we manage them as well as the way they’re able to perform in the game.”

The improved kicking culture at UA is coming together with excellent timing in Reichard’s arrival. A talented prospect in the right ecosystem is why Saban showed no waning faith in Reichard after his two misses in his debut against Duke. Reichard recounted to Wilhoit a conversation he had with Saban, in which Saban told Reichard he was a few feet away from making two 50-yard field goals, that Saban liked his demeanor and the way he was striking the ball.

With his first make in the New Mexico State game came proof of concept.

“Once he made his first kick he was just comfortable the entire time after,” quarterback and holder Tua Tagovailoa said. “That was pretty much the icebreaker, and it gives the team a lot of confidence in him and he has a lot of confidence in himself to know that his team is there with him. He feels like he’s very supported.”

Now that Wilhoit expected any less of Reichard. Wilhoit dubbed him the Baby-Faced Assassin because, “he doesn’t look like the guy who would be a threat, but he comes in and dominates kicking camps.”

If anything, Wilhoit was impressed with his quickly Reichard looked at home in his new surroundings. Wilhoit himself started as a freshman at Tennessee and admitted it took him three or four games to truly get comfortable in front of the massive crowds. In his two successful field goals against New Mexico State, Reichard proved to Wilhoit the potential he saw in him so many years ago.

“He’s got such a consistent strike, he’s such a great guy when it comes to being under pressure,” Wilhoit said. “I think he’s only going to improve and get better.

“If you’re already kicking 49-yard field goals in your second game, you can tell his range is only going to increase and he’s going to be a real weapon for Bama.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson

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