By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Football Writer/Analyst
October 9, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Ron Johnson/USA Today Sports)
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The Illinois coaching staff can really be grateful that the service academy lifestyle wasn’t as appealing to Fabrizio Pinton as he once thought it would be.
The former prep school graduate from Texas, who earned acceptance to the Air Force Academy but lasted only one semester before entering the transfer portal, scored all nine of the Illini’s points on Saturday night in the 9-6 win over Iowa on a trio of field goals (27, 37, 36) after learning right before kickoff he’d be the starting placekicker.
Pinton laughs when you ask him about the 36-yard, game-winner with two minutes and 49 seconds remaining because he “blacked out” after his right toe hit the football.
“I honestly don’t remember anything. Not a thing,” Pinton said. “I remember coming to the sideline and everybody jumping on me but other than that, nothing.”
Right before the Illini team went into the locker room for the final pre-game speech, Illinois kicker Caleb Griffin attempted an extra point in warmups and winched in pain enough that he was bent over at the waist. It was Pinton who attempted the final field goal before the team gathered for the final huddle as Griffin, who has been dealing with a groin/lower body injury the last two weeks, was about to pull himself out of action on Saturday.
“Caleb kicked on Thursday and felt good so our plan initially was to have him do everything 25 yards and in and then everything longer than that would be (Pinton) and I give Caleb all the credit in the world for pulling himself out because after he kicked that warm-up PAT, you could just tell he wasn’t right,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said. “We do rapid fire field goals in practice and I can’t you tell how many times that he goes four for four in that drill.”
Pinton, who came to Illinois as a preferred walk-on to compete with Griffin for a role either on kickoffs or place-kicking duties in the 2022 season, was familiar with Illinois’ program after signing with then-Air Force special teams assistant coach Ben Miller, a 2002 Air Force Academy graduate, as a preferred walk-on in 2020. Pinton quickly realized the Air Force Academy lifestyle wasn’t what he had envisioned for himself and confirmed Saturday night that the academies don’t have enrollees sign their service agreement contracts until at least their sophomore years of undergraduate work.
When Miller found Pinton, who is nicknamed ‘Breezy’ by basically everyone on the roster including the Illini second-year head coach, in the transfer portal in the spring of 2021, the Illini staff immediately attempted to bring him onboard to give the specialists some competition after All-Big Ten kicker James McCourt exhausted his eligibility.
“I saw it as an opportunity and I jumped at it because I’ve always felt like all I needed was a chance to prove myself at this level and that’s exactly what this season has been,” Pinton said. “I know these guys and these coaches have got to trust me but I think that is happening.
Once Pinton, who turns 21 years old in November, arrived last spring after being accepted into the University of Illinois and hopefully getting himself on track to getting into the Giles School of Business studies as an upperclassman, he then had to deal with a coaching shakeup on the football field. Miller, due to a colon cancer diagnosis, would be removed from his on-field coaching duties and former Southern California assistant Sean Snyder would be named the interim special teams coach for the 2022 season.
“I think Coach Snyder and I have developed an amazing chemistry very quickly and that’s been so key to me feeling comfortable here,” Pinton said. “I know that everything I’m asked to do is on short notice really so I need to be prepared and I was tonight. My job is to kick that thing through the yellow goal posts when they ask me to and tonight I did my job just like everybody else on this team was asked to do their job.”
Bielema said he and Snyder were prepared for the moment that came his way Saturday night as he was asked to be a huge part in the Illini’s scoring effort with points at a premium in a defensive Big Ten West matchup.
“The way I would describe it is like this - everything he does, just works,” Bielema said. “It just works.”
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