West Virginia's quirky punter more than just the moustache

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Blinking against the harsh glow of the computer screen, Nick O'Toole pecked out one last email before calling it a night.

One by one, in the fall of 2011, the high school senior's messages landed in college coaches' inboxes, the first email addressed to Brian Kelly, another to Mack Brown, a third to Bob Stoops. He sent dozens, each personalized.

Then, he waited.

This was O'Toole's attempt to shoot the moon: Canvass the country with his highlight tape and hope someone would take notice of a punter, perhaps the least noticeable member of the Mater Dei High School football factory in Santa Ana, Calif., that has produced the likes of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks John Huarte and Matt Leinart.

O'Toole didn't get a single reply.

"It was a brutal couple months," O'Toole said, shaking his head. "It was always my dream to go to a big school and play elite, Division I football."

He laughs now, entirely sure he outkicked his coverage then. Probably not a single coach even opened his email.

After spending 2012 at Fullerton College in Fullerton, Calif., O'Toole landed in Morgantown, where he has quickly morphed from a little-known junior college transfer to a moustachioed fan favorite and one of the top punters in Division I.

The Mountaineers caught wind of O'Toole, now a sophomore, after he participated in a national kicking camp given by Chris Sailer, a former All-American kicker and punter at UCLA, Jan. 19-20 in Las Vegas.

O'Toole was named to the "Top 12" of the event and given the stamp of approval by Sailer, who sent O'Toole's film to a number of schools. That kick-started a whirlwind three weeks.

West Virginia special teams coach Joe DeForest invited O'Toole to visit over Super Bowl weekend. Four days later, on Feb. 6, O'Toole inked his national letter of intent, choosing the Mountaineers over Rutgers and Wyoming.

And there began the growing legend of "Boomstache."

O'Toole earned himself a cult following in August when, after strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde joked that the new punter looked like he was 37, O'Toole committed to a season of facial hair comedy.

In his official team picture, 6-foot-5, 220-pound O'Toole wears a perfect, throwback greaser look: slicked-back hair tucked behind his ears, a wide smirk and, the piece de resistance, a thick, brown moustache.

It's not even his real smile, O'Toole admitted, laughing. "I wanted to get the full moustache, I didn't want to hide it, so I kind of had to do the creepy smirk."

O'Toole's phone rang in mid-August. It was his dad, who came across a message board thread dedicated to "Boomstache," a nickname O'Toole had somehow earned even before suiting up for his debut.

" 'So is this what you were going for?' ... my dad asks me in a really disappointed voice," O'Toole said, laughing again. "Is that what I was going for? Hell yeah!"

O'Toole's infectious, happy-go-lucky personality has made him a natural with reporters and in the locker room. He has drawn comparisons to former Mountaineers and current Indianapolis Colts punter Pat "Boomstick" McAfee for his off-field antics and his powerful leg.

O'Toole's punting has become almost a footnote these days. After a few early season games, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen called O'Toole the team's best offensive weapon after "flipping the field" time after time against opponents such as Oklahoma and Maryland.

In his first month of Division I-A football, O'Toole averaged 44.8 yards on 31 punts, landing in the top 15 in Division I-A in punting average, punts per game and punting yards per game.

O'Toole grinned at the numbers.

He remembers those emails. He remembers when he couldn't get a single scholarship offer. He remembers he was a Fullerton Hornets player just 10 months ago.

"It feels good," he said. "But there's always room for improvement. Top 15? I want to be No. 1. I'm not going to stop until I'm there -- always want to get higher on the chain."

And it's hard to doubt a guy who follows that challenge by stroking his whiskers.

"Once I get the wax, I think it'll add some more yards."

Two years ago, O'Toole sent emails to eight Big 12 Conference schools, which makes each conference game now a chance to prove another coach wrong.

This week: Baylor and coach Art Briles.

"It's crazy," O'Toole said. "I sent all this film and all these emails to coaches I'm playing now. I see their punters and ... "

He stopped himself.

"It just ignites a fire in me. I'm a competitive person, and I love this."

wvusports

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.


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