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Inside kicker Jose Pizano’s improbable journey to UNLV

Written on the tape around Jose Pizano’s left wrist, to be repeated internally by the 22-year-old kicker, were the words and process he always adheres to — game-winning field-goal attempt or not.

Steps. Follow through. Relax.

Steps. Follow through. Relax.

Now they’re written into UNLV’s lore after he kicked the Rebels to a 25-23 victory over Colorado State on Saturday at Allegiant Stadium — and bowl eligibility for the first time since 2013.

UNLV (6-1, 3-0 Mountain West) goes for its sixth straight win Saturday at Fresno State (6-1, 2-1).

Pizano is a fifth-year senior transfer and one of the best kickers in college football, leading the Football Bowl Subdivision with 18 field goals converted in 19 attempts. His field-goal percentage of 94.7 tops those with 16-plus attempts.

Twice already — against Vanderbilt last month, too — he has kicked game-winning field goals, flashing his penchant for peak performance in pressurized environments.

“He’s got it between the ears. He’s got the kind of disposition from a number of perspectives to stay cool under pressure,” said his personal kicking coach, Joe Metzka, who holds a doctorate in psychology.

“If you need a 35-yarder with the game on the line, Jose is not going to miss.”

Standing 5 feet 9 inches and weighing 220 pounds, Pizano stows in his psyche beneath a mop of black hair and deep brown eyes the unfettered confidence he hides with his humility and quick-witted humor. 

In his hometown of Lehi, Utah, his father, Rodolfo, was a welder while his mother, Veronica, focused on raising Pizano and his sister, Sandra. Jose Pizano married in April his longtime girlfriend, Hailey, who forms with his family the calm for Pizano amid the stress of college football.

Said Pizano, a Football Championship Subdivision All-American at Missouri State: “Family was my biggest factor to come to UNLV.”

And Friday night fun the biggest factor in Pizano playing football.

From pitch to gridiron

Pizano first roamed the soccer pitch as a crafty midfielder with a thunderous right leg. As accurate as he was powerful, he longed to play college and professional soccer, but one of his best friends, Wyatt Mosher, thought he’d thrive in the environment football inspires.

As the punter and kicker on Lehi’s 2016 team, Mosher for months recruited Pizano to play.

“Just come sit. Throw the pads on. It’ll be fun,” he told Pizano, promising to him — correctly — that the Pioneers would win the 2017 state title.

So Pizano replaced Mosher as the punter during that season, immersing himself in football for the first time while juggling the commitment to his soccer club. Pizano was so proficient punting that he would routinely boot 40- and 50-yarders into trash cans stationed in the coffin corner during practice.

An injury to Mosher made Pizano the kicker, though Lehi in its dominance didn’t require his services. He pledged to play soccer at Snow College, leaving Lehi behind and football with it.

Or so he thought.

Soccer suddenly felt stale during his freshman season and football still fun, prompting Pizano to email Snow football coach Andrew Mitchell about trying out. Before Mitchell could respond, special teams coordinator Nelson Fishback found Pizano at the football field practicing kicks.

Needing another kicker, he invited Pizano to practice — and eventually join Snow’s football team.

A torn ACL to the incumbent kicker three days before the 2019 season-opener thrust Pizano into his college debut: a 30-27 victory over No. 3 Garden City, the difference being his 32-yarder from the right hash as time expired.

He made 9 of 12 field goals during his lone season at Snow, fortifying in him the determination he brought to the Rebels.

“I was like, ‘If I put my time into it, I could definitely do something with this,’” Pizano said. “So I started working every day, telling myself, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this the right way.’”

From Missouri State to UNLV

Fishback would leave Snow for Missouri State that fall, meaning so, too, would Pizano, joining the Bears under former coach Bobby Petrino. Pizano promptly won the kicking competition, converting 12 of 14 field goals — including two game-winners — during a spring season truncated in 2021 by COVID-19.

He made a combined 33 of 40 field goals over the following two years, earning FCS All-America honors in 2021 and graduating in 2022 with a degree in economics. A trip to the transfer portal would follow, and with it a commitment to UNLV, where Petrino in his 21-day stint as its offensive coordinator was touting him to coach Barry Odom.

“(He) approaches every day like he should. Every kick is so important for us,” Odom said. “Understands he’s got a job to do. And he takes it very, very serious.”

But not to the point where he can’t enjoy it. He brings an affable attitude to practice — and an appreciation for what the Rebels are accomplishing, their culture “united” under Odom.

Pizano hopes to play in the NFL, though Saturdays until then are just as special.

“I never pictured myself in this situation because I was a die-hard soccer player and always wanted to play soccer my whole life,” he said. “It’s just mind-blowing, the things you can really accomplish if you put your mind and go execute and do what you need to do for yourself — and the team.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on X.

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