In 2016, Jim Harbaugh wanted Quinn Nordin so badly that he slept over his family’s house in an ultimately successful effort to recruit the high school kicker to Michigan.
Suffice to say, that doesn’t happen often. Not for a blue-chipper, and for a special teamer, even more so.
By every measure, Tommy Doman Jr. is one of the top specialists in the class of 2021. But you won’t find the Orchard Lake St. Mary’s kicker/punter, or any kicker/punter, ranked on major recruiting sites like ESPN, Rivals or 247Sports. Many Michigan fans probably hadn’t even heard of Doman until he committed to the Wolverines on April 2.
On full scholarship, no less. That also doesn’t happen often for a special teamer.
Relative to his competition, Doman is every bit as good a prospect as someone like five-star quarterback commit J.J. McCarthy. But the recruitment process for even the best high school kickers and punters has little in common with McCarthy, who’s been receiving Drew Brees comparisons for the last year. It’s a process defined less by breathless hype and fierce recruiting battles and more by trust and patience — and it’s gotten Doman to his dream school.
Doman, who played both soccer and football as a child, started kicking in fourth grade, figuring it was his best shot at making it to college and beyond. He regularly attended kicking camps over the following years, and became the Eaglets’ starting specialist as a sophomore. But it took until last summer for things to really take off.
Part of that was physical. Contrary to the perception of kickers and punters as unathletic robots, there are preferred body types for each. At the highest level, kickers are often on the short side, explosive and compact, while punters veer towards tall, fluid and long-limbed. Doman, who shot up from 5-foot-9 as a freshman to his current height of 6-foot-3, has the prototypical frame of a punter and the technique to succeed as a kicker as well.
But perhaps an even bigger part is exposure. There are only so many opportunities for specialists over the course of a game, which makes national camps and showcases all the more important. During the summer after his sophomore year, Doman began attending these events, and came to relish the pressure, the feeling of having 700 or so eyes all on him, the knowledge he could make a name for himself.
It was after his success at these camps when Doman began believing he had a real chance at making it to the next level. Others felt the same.
“I really liked the fact that he did both skills,” said Chris Sailer, who runs one of the nation’s largest kicking camps. “He was adamant about learning both, competing at both skills, where most of our players are like, ‘I’m a kicker’ or ‘I’m a punter’. What we saw was a talented young athlete who hadn’t grown into what he’s become, but someone who had potential to be a special player.”
That potential initially drew a preferred walk-on spot from Michigan, but once Doman’s junior season began, interest died down a bit. Not because of anything Doman was doing (he hit 9-of-15 field goals and averaged 40.3 yards per punt), but because of the nature of his position.
Sailer describes the recruitment of specialists as cyclical. They’re the last area of importance for colleges, who will look to build depth at every other position first. Colleges are in the market for another quarterback or another safety every year. For a specialist, it’s every three or four — and even then, usually after all other scholarships are accounted for.
So it doesn’t make sense for coaches to crisscross the country in search of kicking help. Instead, they go right to the source — camps such as Sailer’s, Kohl’s and Kornblue, which are held during the offseason — for recommendations, trusting their work and their evaluation. It’s more akin to a career fair than a typical college recruitment process.
With so few spots for specialists, colleges can’t mess it up: if they offer a kicker a scholarship, they have to be completely sure it will be worth it. And after Sailer’s national event in Las Vegas in January, he had an even more glowing recommendation of Doman to give them.
“Tommy has the size, his technique is excellent and because of that, he punts with extreme confidence,” Sailer told Maize n Brew. “He has NFL-type talent as a high schooler, and that’s special. You’re only going to see that every three or four years. He’s hungry, he really enjoys doing it, and he has the internal drive to be successful.”
Schools quickly started calling. Sailer talked with around 30 college coaches about Doman, and had Doman not committed this spring, Sailer thinks he could have ultimately received as many as 40 scholarship offers.
In this regard, kicking and punting is not terribly unlike any other position: if you’re the best at what you do, people will take notice — the timing might just be altered slightly. So the massive interest in Doman made total sense. He’s an excellent kicker in his own right, but his allure as a punter was even greater. Punting is a harder skill to master than kicking, with hands thrown into the equation along with legs — the margin for error is even slimmer.
This means in a given class, Sailer can name around four times as many kickers with scholarship potential than punters. Which makes a long, lean, traditional punter with upside, skill and athleticism like Doman one of the rarest and most sought-after commodities in high school football.
“Kicking-wise, there are probably 15, 20 players who can compete with him,” Sailer said. “Punting-wise, there’s really no one. I believe he’s in a class of his own.”
But all the while, Doman was waiting for Michigan.
It’s a place he calls a “second home.” It’s a place where he’s attended specialist camps since he was 13. A place where he’s developed a strong bond with special teams analyst Tyler Brown. It’s a place where family and friend ties run deep, and a place he’s always dreamed of one day playing.
“It’s just always felt like another family to me,” Doman told Maize n Brew.
It would have been easy to see Doman ending up in Ann Arbor anyway, but the offer Harbaugh and company put on the table was beyond anything Doman could have passed up. It came during his junior year, while some senior specialists have to wait until the April signing deadline to know where they’re going to school.
The Wolverines will give him the chance to kick, punt and kick off, something just six FBS kickers did in 2019. They believe he can handle it all, and that speaks as much as anything Doman’s done already.
“They’re totally different swings,” Sailer said. “Muscle memory is hard to develop when you’re working on two different skills. When you kick, it messes with your punt swing and vice versa. As far as technical development, it actually interferes with one another.
“It’s very, very rare for somebody to do both skills at the college level. But the talent he has is there.”
In another timeline, that might have made Doman worthy of a Harbaugh overnight visit. But there was no need — once the offer came, he committed on the spot.
And needless to say, he’s fully aware of how significant that is.
“It’s a real honor,” Doman said. “It’s my dream school, and I have a great relationship with the coaching staff. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”