'Holder of the Year' Peter Mortell doing everything and more to fulfill NFL dream
Chris Fowler looked out to the room of college football royalty, tongue-in-cheek. The likes of Christian McCaffrey and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry were on hand. Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier were in the house, too. Anybody who was anybody in the sport was at the Home Depot College Football Awards Show at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta on that December night.
Ten days earlier, Minnesota punter/holder Peter Mortell half-jokingly fired off a tweet that put himself among the national award winners:
"Your hands are too slow" they said.
"Your cadence has no rhythm" they said. This one's for the state of Minnesota. pic.twitter.com/HkgGRK0aL1
— Peter Mortell (@PMortell37) December 1, 2015
Major news outlets across the country got wind of Mortell’s self-appointed honor, including the same ESPN network that was broadcasting the annual college football awards show.
As Fowler began his next award introduction, the image from Mortell’s tweet stretched across the projection screen at the College Football Hall of Fame. It previewed a highlight reel of him doing what he became a viral sensation for — holding.
Mortell couldn’t be in attendance to accept his made-up award. Instead, he sent along an acceptance speech. Dressed in a full suit, Mortell apologized to the award show crowd for not being there in person.
He did have a worthy excuse. He was back in Minneapolis, training to become the first holder selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Well, that didn’t tell the whole story.
Mortell might’ve become a viral sensation for making up an award for himself, but his training regimen is anything but a “pat-on-the-back” approach. The Minnesota senior would love to become a holder in the NFL. But Mortell’s ticket to playing on Sundays consists of three workouts per day developing at the same position that earned him a scholarship at Minnesota.
“I want to be a punter,” he said. “I have fun with the holder thing and I’m happy that a lot of people played along with it, but it’s an important part of being a punter. On a lot of NFL teams, the punter is the holder. Some are quarterbacks, but the amount of time specialists spend with each other, it just makes sense to have those two guys together in all their down time.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with it up here in Minnesota. A lot of people back here got a kick out of it. It’s just another part of my skill set.”
On top of squeezing in 100 holds per day, Mortell’s workout schedule is more intense now than it was when he was in school. His three training sessions per day all focus on a different area of improvement.
The mornings are reserved for weightlifting with assistant Minnesota strength and conditioning coach Chad Pearson. Everything is ground-based with an emphasis on building strength in the back, hamstrings and hip flexors. After lunch, Mortell comes back to the facility for an hour-and-a-half of conditioning. Another break for dinner and it’s already nighttime before he gets his usual 50-60 punts up.
He crashes around 8:30 p.m., gets his nine-plus hours of sleep, wakes up and does it all over again. Mortell might play a couple of specialist positions, but he can’t stomach the idea of missing out on the NFL for physical reasons.
“He doesn’t want to just be known as a big leg,” Pearson said of the 2014 first-team All-B1G punter. “He wants to be the guy that can make certain punts and if need be, he’s not a liability on the field if there’s a return coming his way. He wants to be able to get that part of the job done.”
There are two claims Mortell prides himself on. One is that he’s never botched a hold in a game. The other is that he’s never had one of his punts returned for a touchdown.
That streak was in jeopardy last October when Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers fielded Mortell’s punt and exploded down the right sideline with his sights set on scoring his first collegiate touchdown.
But the 6-2, 200-pound Gopher punter prevented that from happening, albeit not in textbook fashion.
“It wasn’t really a tackle,” Mortell admitted. “It was more of me just grabbing on for dear life and hoping that he came down with me.”
That didn’t stop Mortell from rewinding it a few times on the game film.
Of greater importance to him, however, was what led to Peppers’ long return. It was a low punt in the middle of the field that allowed one of the nation’s most explosive players to get a head of steam.
Those punts will get him fired in the NFL.
Mortell’s pre-draft focus has been on direction and hang time. Improving hang time from 4.3 seconds to 5.0 can be the difference between a fair catch and a touchdown return in the NFL. That was advice he got from Atlanta Falcons punter Matt Bosher, who Mortell worked out with in Florida. Some of his pre-draft tips were on his mind preparing for the Quick Lane Bowl.
That paid off.
All four of Mortell’s punts were inside the Central Michigan 20-yard line, two of which were inside the 6-yard line and only one even resulted in a return. In a game of field position, Mortell’s precision was monumental in Minnesota preserving the 21-14 victory for the program’s first bowl win in 11 years.
“That was a hidden goal of his that he wanted to improve on. That game especially, the way he was changing the field for us, it really changes the game,” Pearson said. “That will be noted at the next level.”
Getting to the next level has always been Mortell’s objective, though that didn’t look as realistic a few years ago.
The Green Bay, Wis. native only started punting as a junior in high school because the team’s starter went down. Mortell, an all-conference receiver and defensive back, won an open tryout with 20 of his teammates to earn the gig. Two years later, he impressed again at the Kohl’s Professional Kicking & Punting Camp, and came out ranked as the No. 8 punter in the 2011 class.
Still, even after he sent out game film to 90 Division I programs, he didn’t get a single callback.
The only one who eventually called Mortell about a preferred walk-on spot — after sending five highlight films — was first-year Minnesota coach Jerry Kill. Mortell eventually won the starting job and a scholarship, both of which were earned because of his work ethic off the field and his consistency on it.
He’ll audition for another job on his pro day March 7, which will give him an opportunity to impress scouts the same way he impressed Kill.
“I’m hoping to get the same type of reaction from these NFL guys,” he said. “I know that if I have a shot, I know I’ll make the most of it.”
That’ll be Mortell’s best chance to rise up or earn a spot on draft boards. He’ll also have other opportunities at various national specialist showcases leading up to the draft.
He said he just missed the cut on getting an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Roughly 4-5 punters per year get an invite. Even more exclusive, an average of 1.4 punters were drafted in the last five years.
As ideal as it would be for the Green Bay native to get picked by his home-town team or to wind up in a dome stadium, Mortell has no preference on where he winds up.
Just as long as he winds up somewhere.
“To be honest with you,” he said, “all I’m looking for is a chance.”
Mortell isn’t pinning his hopes on draft day. Given the rarity of open punter jobs, he’s prepared to continue his three-a-day workout regimen if his name doesn’t get called in April.
“You hear all the time that there’s multiple ways into the party,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t come through the front door and you’ve got to come through the back.”
If there’s one skill Mortell can hang his hat on, it’s that he always finds a way. He found a way to turn a routine high school special teams audition into a Division I football scholarship. He found a way to turn a Quick Lane Bowl goodie bag into $25,000 worth of gifts for teenage patients at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. He found a way to turn 140 characters into a national college football award.
Above all else, Mortell found a way to turn five game films into five memorable years at Minnesota.
Next up? Finding a way to turn it all into 15 years in the NFL.
“If he’s a guy that gets his opportunity, he could be a guy that stays for a long time,” Pearson said. “He’s got the mindset. Nothing bothers him too much and he stays locked in. He’s just a guy that you want to be your punter.”
And your holder.