Fake punt by Vikings’ Ryan Wright stirs memories of his days as a high school QB
Wright’s arm was really on display for California High in 2016, when he completed 103 of 168 passes for 1,806 yards with 27 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
MINNEAPOLIS -- When Minnesota Vikings rookie punter Ryan Wright completed a pass for a first down on a fake punt last Sunday in London, a P.E. teacher watching 5,300 miles away in California all but jumped out of his chair.
Wright’s 13-yard pass to rookie receiver Jalen Nailor in the third quarter led to a field goal that helped the Vikings to a 28-25 victory over the New Orleans Saints. And watching on television was Eric Billeci, once Wright’s head football coach at California High School in San Ramon.
Wright, you see, was a quarterback for the Grizzlies. And Billeci, now exclusively a teacher at the school, was happy to see him wind up his arm one more time.
“It’s been a surreal experience,” Billeci said Tuesday about the reaction in Wright’s hometown, “I was watching and I’m thinking he’s going to boom it and then I saw him pull the ball up, and I was like, ‘Here we go,’ It was pretty cool.”
Billeci, who coached the California High football team from 2009-19, quickly fired off a text message to Wright to offer his congratulations. He hadn’t heard anything back by Tuesday afternoon, but that was understandable since the punter has been bombarded with messages.
“My phone’s blown up a little bit,” he said. “I have had to put it on do-not-disturb.”
Wright’s fake punt also has received plenty of reaction in New Orleans, where he played in college for Tulane. Green Wave head coach Willie Fritz wasn’t watching the game live but soon heard about it on social media and saw a clip of it.
“I’ve seen that in person a few times,” Fritz said. “We used to run that in practice a lot. And he had a 12-yard pass on a fake punt against East Carolina last year. He’s an excellent thrower. We used to have him throw balls to our defensive backs during drills in practice.”
Wright’s arm was really on display for California High in 2016, when he completed 103 of 168 passes for 1,806 yards with 27 touchdowns and just three interceptions. But as a senior in 2017, with Wright saying the team had lost a lot of key players to graduation, he completed just 72 of 132 passes for 1,013 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
Advancing as a punter
After that season, Wright failed to get any college scholarship offers to play quarterback. Instead of taking one of the walk-on opportunities he was offered to be a quarterback at a Division II or NAIA school, he grabbed a full scholarship offer to punt at Tulane.
Against the Saints on Sunday, he had a brief return back to his quarterback days.
“It’s definitely cool to get a little bit of recognition,” said Wright, whose throw to Nailor came on fourth-and-2 at the Saints 47 with the Vikings leading 16-14 with two minutes left in the third quarter. “It’s obviously a cool thing for a punter to throw a ball in the game. It’s definitely awesome to see.”
Wright said when the Vikings signed him as an undrafted rookie last spring, special-teams coordinator Matt Daniels knew about his ability to throw the ball. And Sunday’s game looked to be the perfect time to unveil Wright as an NFL passer and for Nailor to get his first career catch.
“We’d been working on that play all week,” Wright said. “Probably got 100 throws with Jalen, and it was a good designed play. We knew it was going to be wide open, and it was definitely fun to throw the ball.”
He also has had fun lately punting the ball. Wright, who beat out veteran Jordan Berry for the job in the preseason, is averaging 47.5 yards gross and 44.3 yards net through four games. His success doesn’t surprise Fritz, who watched Wright average 44.5 yards gross in his college career, including 47.5 as a senior.
“He has a cannon of a leg,” Fritz said. “He was knocking the cover off the ball when he was here, and it seems like he’s doing the same thing in the NFL.”
Wright also did that at California High, where he was ranked the No. 4 punter in the nation as a senior. With that in mind, Wright figured he had a “better future in punting” than at quarterback.
Still, the memories linger of Wright’s days as a high school signal caller. Billeci said he had “an incredibly strong arm” and threw quite a few 50-yard touchdown passes.
But Billeci, who said he speaks to Wright about once a week, is a tough critic. He said that when he next talks to him, he will make note of the fake punt.
“I’m going to give him a hard time that it was definitely underthrown,” Billeci said with a laugh. “But he’s probably not used to throwing from 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage, so I’ll give him a little leeway.”
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