GETTING EVEN MORE KICKS: Reliable Temple senior Wagaman enjoys adding kickoffs, punting to workload
STANDARDS TO UPHOLD: Temple's special teams broke down several times in last Friday's 43-25 home loss to Arlington Martin, but senior and fourth-year starting kicker Aaron Wagaman caught a 2-point pass, ran for 12 yards on a fake punt, had a 69-yard punt, made a 34-yard field goal and executed an onside kick that the Wildcats recovered. With 253 career points, Wagaman is 60 away from breaking Lache Seastrunk's Temple career record of 312 from 2007-09. Wagaman and the Wildcats (2-1) begin their seven-game District 12-6A schedule at Copperas Cove (1-2) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bulldawg Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Aaron Wagaman was a productive and valued member of Temple's football team as a freshman, sophomore and junior as he kicked 20 field goals and 174 extra points for three playoff squads.
However, kicking the pigskin through the uprights on PATs and short- to mid-range field goals was all that Wagaman was asked to do. That's because the Wildcats had other skilled, strong-legged players – first Jared Wiley and then Adrian Guzman – who could capably handle the duties on kickoffs, punts and longer field goal attempts.
But when Wagaman's fourth and final varsity season arrived, so did the opportunity to grab the lead role in all elements of Temple's kicking game: field goals, extra points, kickoffs and punts. And three games into his senior year, saying the left-footed Wagaman is enjoying his expanded responsibilities would be a big understatement.
“I love having all three positions. I've been waiting for it for three years and I finally got them, and I'm so happy about it,” said the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Wagaman, who this season has scored 19 points – two field goals, 11 extra points and a 2-point conversion catch last Friday against Arlington Martin – and averaged 40.1 yards on 16 punts.
“He's obviously a gifted kid. He's worked really hard on his technique and strength,” Temple fifth-year head coach Scott Stewart said of Wagaman. “He was a decent kicker when he was a freshman, but he's worked really hard in the weight room and he's just developed to be, in my opinion, a premier kicker.”
Wagaman entered his senior campaign with 234 career points, needing 79 to surpass the Temple program's all-time scoring record of running back Lache Seastrunk, who accumulated 312 points by scoring 52 touchdowns from 2007-09. Wagaman averaged 6.5 points in his first 36 games from 2017-19 and has scored 6.33 points per game this season for Temple (2-1), which after a rigorous non-district schedule will begin District 12-6A play at Copperas Cove (1-2) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Bulldawg Stadium.
Continuing at that rate, Wagaman would need for the Wildcats to play at least 10 more games this season – seven district outings, then three or more games in the Class 6A playoffs – to overtake Seastrunk's record. To eclipse the mark by the end of the regular season, Wagaman would need to average just under 8.6 points per game.
Although Wagaman certainly is aware of how he stands in his pursuit of such a major goal, he's much more focused simply on helping his team succeed and being grateful for having games to play, because the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the basic ability to play football each week.
“It's really hard to say, but I'm really not too worried about it right now,” Wagaman said about his chances of breaking Temple's scoring record. “I'm most thankful that we're actually playing this year. I was really scared in the offseason. I was like, 'Man, my senior year, (I'm) not going to be able to do it.' We're very blessed to be able to play.”
Stewart has long considered Wagaman a “goofball” and made the kicker a favorite target of his good-natured ribbing.
"I never pass up an opportunity to give Wags a hard time. You've got to. But he can take it," Stewart said. "He's got a great personality. I rib him, but it's never anything personal."
However, the coach's overriding feeling about the player known as “Wags” is that he's been a very steady performer for the Wildcats for a four-year period.
“If you're in the top five (all-time scorers) considering what's come through this place, shoot, that's a testament to his consistency and his longevity,” Stewart said. “Not many people get a chance to play as a freshman, and Wags played 14 games as a freshman. He's very consistent. Even as a freshman he could always keep it on the flat line. Not that he made everything, but it wasn't (all over the place).”
Sharp play on special teams helped Temple begin its season with double-digit wins away from home against Longview and Magnolia West, but the Wildcats' special teams crashed back to earth in the 43-25 home loss to Martin in last Friday's non-district finale.
A high punt snap that sailed well over Wagaman's head was recovered by Zaire Barrow in the end zone for a Warriors touchdown only 1:14 into the game, and Temple's normally sure-tackling coverage unit allowed Martin speedster Lenard Lemons to return kickoffs for touchdowns of 96 and 100-plus yards in the middle two quarters, helping the Warriors transform a back-and-forth battle into a runaway.
“It wasn't very good – not a good special teams night,” Wagaman said Tuesday, admitting that Temple failed to uphold several tenets of the “Special Teams Constitution” that the Wildcats recite daily in the meeting room of assistant coach Robby Case, who coordinates their special teams. “We've been pounding kickoffs for a day and a half, switching things up. Hopefully it won't happen again.
“We just busted some assignments, and Arlington Martin did a good job blocking. Their special teams are really top-tier. Honestly we haven't played that many teams with superior special teams, because we take it really seriously.”
On Lemons' second kickoff return for a TD, Wagaman's kickoff to begin the second half drove him 5 yards deep into the end zone but he brought it out anyway rather than settle for a touchback. For the second consecutive time, Lemons sprinted unscathed through 11 Wildcats on the field. Wagaman said he didn't come close to tackling Lemons on either of his well-blocked kickoff return scores.
“We pride ourselves on special teams here, and that was not a prideful special teams night,” Wagaman said. “It won't happen again, that's for sure."
The game's tone was set roughly one minute into it when Wagaman waited for a punt snap around his 15-yard line. The snap from fellow senior Dylan Hinkle sailed several feet above Wagaman's head and the ball skidded into the end zone. At that point, the best-case scenario for Temple was that Wagaman could retreat and fall on the ball in the end zone for a safety and two points for Martin.
And, well, that's not exactly what happened.
“It went over my head, and when I turned around I kind of fell. That just looked bad from the get-go,” Wagaman explained. “It wasn't good.”
Wagaman tried to get back to the ball to prevent a touchdown, but he wasn't nearly fast enough to beat Barrow, a small, fleet-footed sophomore running back who crashed in to make the recovery for the first of Martin's three special teams TDs and an early 8-0 lead.
“He's really fast,” Wagaman said. “I met him later in the game (on one of Lemons' kickoff return TDs) and that did not work out good.”
Stewart conceded that Wagaman could have used better judgment on the errant punt snap.
“The first thing out of his mouth was, 'Coach, I should have scrambled for that, huh?' And the answer was, 'Yes,'” Stewart said. “He jumped and then he fell and then he checked his rear-view mirror. He looked to see if (Martin's) guys were coming. I'm like, 'They're always coming. They're coming. They send 10 guys on every single one.' So when he did that, the guy got a jump on him, and at that point, it's just get in there and get in the mix. He said, 'Coach, I should've gone in there and scrambled for that.' I said, 'I agree.'
“You've got to let instinct take over. In the middle of the play he was like, 'I was wondering if I should kick it out or not.' I'm like, 'Dude, just get the ball or get it out of bounds.' There's a penalty that comes with that, but them getting (the ball) is the worst thing that could possibly happen. We'd love to not be in that situation, but that's football. I see it on Saturdays and on Sundays.”
RARE OPPORTUNITY: Temple senior Aaron Wagaman runs in the end zone after catching a 2-point conversion pass from junior running back Samari Howard during the Wildcats' 43-25 loss to Arlington Martin last Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. Those were the first non-kicking points scored by Wagaman, the fourth-year starting kicker who now has 253 career points. Wagaman also uncorked a 69-yard punt against Martin and is averaging 40.1 yards on 16 punts this season. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Wagaman definitely also was in on some positive moments against Martin. After Temple answered Martin's early touchdown with junior Samari Howard's 14-yard TD rush, the Wildcats lined up in a swinging gate formation for the conversion. When the Warriors didn't really account for Wagaman, Howard got the snap and threw to an open Wagaman – Hinkle made a key block for him – for an easy 2-point play and an 8-8 tie.
“We added that two weeks ago and we've been doing it every day in practice,” Wagaman said of the first time he's scored points by catching the ball instead of kicking it. “(Martin) didn't pick me up. They probably thought, 'Oh, that's the kicker. He's not going to catch it.'”
Later in the first quarter, with Temple facing fourth-and-3 at its 24, Wagaman got into punt formation and surveyed the field. The play call was a rugby-style punt to the left side, but the senior improvised by keeping the ball and running along the left side for a 12-yard gain and the first down – although that possession eventually ended with Wagaman's punt that pinned the Warriors at their 7.
“That was not planned,” said Wagaman, who also kicked a 34-yard field goal with 4 minutes left in the game and executed a final-minute onside kick that Temple recovered. “I just saw it was wide-open. I was like, 'Might as well, I guess.' There was someone rushing hard from the right side in my peripheral vision and I saw (the left side) coming wide open, so I was like, 'I gotta get it.'”
Wagaman said his 2-point reception and 12-yard run gave him a jolt of confidence and some long-awaited credentials as a “real football player,” for lack of a better term.
“Oh, yeah. (My teammates) were like, 'Wags, I didn't know you could do that. I didn't know you could do this,'” Wagaman said, smiling. “I'm like, 'Yeah, I can run the ball. I can catch a ball.' I think (that I could play a non-kicking position) in my head, but then I'm like, 'These people go through way too much. I'm going to stick to just the kicking job.'”
"Wags has asked to play a (regular) position – and he doesn't care what it is – since he got here," Stewart said. "And I was like, 'Dude, you're too big a weapon,' and he's like, 'Coach, I'm tired of hearing that. I've showed off my skills. I can play slot receiver; I can play outside linebacker.'"
The top personal highlight of Wagaman's first three years as Temple's primary kicker probably was his 40-yard field goal in the second overtime period of the Wildcats' 58-55, triple-OT victory over rival Belton in 2018 at Wildcat Stadium. He accounted for 77 points as a 14-year-old freshman as 10-4 Temple reached the 5A Division I Region III final in 2017, then compiled 73 and 84 points, respectively, the next two years as the Wildcats went 8-3 with first-round exits from the 6A D-II playoffs both seasons.
Wagaman was selected 12-6A's first-team all-district kicker last year, while his good friend Guzman was voted the second-team punter. Guzman also used his strong right leg to compile dozens of touchbacks last season, and when Temple wanted to try a 43-yard field goal in the second quarter of its playoff game at reigning state champion Longview, Guzman got the call and made it for one of the Wildcats' few highlights in a 41-10 defeat.
With Guzman now part of Tarleton State's football program, Wagaman no longer has to wonder if Stewart will call on him or someone else to attempt a long field. That said, he loved competing with Guzman.
“In Temple it's always a competition. That's what I love about Temple. Nothing's set in stone, ever,” Wagaman said. “Adrian's my best friend to this day. We're super-close. We knew our positions and what we were going to do.”
Wagaman credits diligent work in the weight room – he can lift 355 pounds in the squat and 205 in the bench press – plus the stretching regimen designed by new Temple strength and conditioning director Ryan Boutwell for improving his range on all kicks as well as his overall flexibility. Whereas Wagaman's field goal range as a freshman was 35 to 37 yards, he's now comfortable kicking them from 45 to 50 yards.
Wagaman realized he had to work hard to become Temple's punter following Guzman.
“I had big shoes to fill. I've just been pounding punts (in practice), because I've never really done it,” Wagaman said. “I was like, 'Coach, I'm going to get good on punts. This year I'm going to punt for you.'”
Having been a standout punter among several other positions in his high school days at Troy, Stewart can appreciate Wagaman's rapid improvement in the punting game.
“He's really come a long way. That's probably more impressive to me than anything else, just the time and intent he's put into becoming a better punter,” Stewart said. “That's all technique. It's frame it, drop it and drive it, and he's worked really hard on that. I was a better-than-average punter, but I couldn't kick a field goal from here to that trash can.”
Wagaman said his favorite moment this season was Temple's season-opening 40-13 win over Longview at Arlington's AT&T Stadium. Wagaman's rolling, 53-yard punt with 7:20 remaining was downed at the 1-yard line, right before senior defensive lineman Jayven Taylor swarmed a Lobo in the end zone for a safety.
“That was a game-changer for momentum and got the defense really riled up,” Wagaman said. “That was a great win for our team. We got revenge.”
Last week, Wagaman got excellent roll on a punt that traveled 69 yards and was downed at the 6. Of course, it was fitting on that night that the Warriors proceeded to drive 94 yards for another touchdown.
Football isn't the only sport in which Wagaman excels. A right-handed pitcher for coach Dallas Robertson's Temple baseball team, Wagaman fired a no-hitter with eight strikeouts at Belton as the Wildcats won their season and 12-6A opener 2-0 on Feb. 25, shortly before the pandemic canceled the rest of the schedule.
But because his fastball velocity barely exceeds 80 mph, Wagaman believes that kicking will give him the best shot to achieve his goal of playing college sports on a scholarship. He hopes to attract interest from large-school recruiters, but he also has his eyes on the programs at Tarleton State or Abilene Christian because he wants to study agribusiness and eventually pursue a career in ranch management.
As for his current academic load, Wagaman said, “Oh man, don't even get me started on physics.” But he enjoys participating in the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) practicum, a dual-credit course he takes that's run in conjunction with Temple College and will allow him next semester to ride in ambulances and be around actual patients.
As for why Wagaman's been able to enjoy a successful four-year run as Temple's reliable kicker, it's fairly simple for him.
“(Wildcat Stadium) is like my home," Wagaman said. "From sixth to eighth grade I kicked here every other day, if not every day, just working on it and trying to get on varsity. It's my home. I love kicking here at Temple.”