Like most place-kickers, UB’s Alex McNulty is a cerebral sort, an inveterate tinkerer, forever in search of a mental edge. But he’s the rare college student who struggles to remember his precise grade-point average. 

“I don’t pay too much attention to my GPA,” McNulty said after practice on Thursday. “I like learning the material. I feel like when you’re obsessed with the grades, you get too stressed out.”

For the record, the guy has done a pretty good job of mastering the class material at UB. McNulty, a fifth-year senior from Caledonia, carries a 3.80 grade-point average. And important people in the college football world have been paying attention. 

McNulty is a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which is awarded by the National Football Foundation and known as the Academic Heisman. It recognizes the college football players with the best combination of academic success, leadership and on-field performance.

Oh, to qualify a player must be a senior with a grade-point average of at least 3.2. The 12-to-14 finalists for the Campbell Trophy will be chosen on Oct. 26. Each recipient will receive an $18,000 post-graduate scholarship and an invitation to the 64th annual awards dinner at the Bellagio in Las Vegas on Dec. 6.

“It’s exciting,” said McNulty, a biology and physics dual major with a minor in math. “It means a lot to be recognized, not just athletically but academically as well.”

McNulty easily cleared the GPA bar. He has also cleared a lot of football crossbars lately. He’s currently tied for fifth in the nation in made field goals with 13. After missing his first attempt in the opener, he has connected on 13 in a row for the Bulls, who host Toledo at 1 p.m. Saturday in a battle of the lone remaining unbeaten teams in the MAC standings.

Earlier this season, McNulty was named MAC East special teams player of the week twice in a row after making four field goals against Coastal Carolina and three against Eastern Michigan. He has a good chance to break UB’s single-season record of 17 made field goals, set by Gerald Carlson in 1995. The 6-1, 230-pounder is 10 behind Adam Mitcheson’s career record of 48. 

He’s come a long way since booting a 55-yard field goal in a sophomore gym class at Rochester McQuaid, prompting the football coach to ask him to try out for the team. McNulty was hooked.  At the end of his junior year, he did a project on place-kicking for his AP Physics 1 class. 

“I kind of broke down the physics of the ball flight and stuff like that,” he said. 

He’s been a student of kicking ever since, though it was a slow process. McNulty walked on at Buffalo and was a redshirt in the 2018 season, when UB won 10 games and reached its first bowl game in five years. In 2019, he took over the kicking job from Jackson Baltar and made 10 of 15 field goals, including one in the Bulls’ win over Charlotte in the Bahamas Bowl. 

In 2020, McNulty made 1 of 4 field goals, his only make against Marshall in the Camellia Bowl. UB didn’t have much need for field goals in a Covid-shortened ’20 season, averaging 43 points in seven games and ranking second in the nation in rushing. McNulty was a record 42-for-42 on extra points. 

Last year, he had his best year yet. McNulty was 13-for-21 on field goals, including a game-winner with three seconds left against Miami of Ohio and a 55-yarder with 1:10 left that forced overtime against Northern Illinois. The Bulls fell in OT, but their kicker had truly arrived as a clutch performer. 

He’s taken it to another level this season. It’s reached the point where you expect every kick to be true, with McNulty achieving a rare confidence and command of the art — or is it science? —of kicking.

“I’d say the biggest difference is just trusting the preparation more,” he said, “and also kind of changing my preparation so it’s not all physical. We’re only kicking in practice twice a week. There’s a lot more mental and stretching and stuff that goes into the preparation this year that’s helped a lot, where I feel a lot more fresh on game day and ready to go. Just mentally having a very good routine that keeps me prepared for game day.”

Baltar, an all-purpose special teamer who has kicked, punted and held for kicks for the Bulls, had been McNulty’s teammate, friend and sometimes kicking rival during his four years in Buffalo. He and McNulty worked out together in the offseason. Baltar said they developed a shared mental commitment to helping the Bulls become a championship team in Mo Linguist’s second season as head man.

The key to McNulty’s current success, he said, starts with the belief in himself.

“Once you get that streak going, you feel invincible when you go out there,” Baltar said. “Like it’s automatic. I really think he’s gotten into that kind of flow, almost like becoming a machine where you go out there and you assume, and everyone else assumes, everyone’s got confidence in you, you’ve got confidence in yourself, that ball’s going through the uprights.”

McNulty says he relishes those big pressure kicks. He said if a kicker doesn’t want the moment, he won’t perform when the situation arises. The pressure doesn’t bother him. If anything, he’s had problems at times being too relaxed before a kick.

“The biggest thing is trying not to make it bigger than it is,” he said, “and knowing it’s something you practice and prepared for. You’re preparing for these moments, so don’t make them bigger than they are. You’re ready. You’re good to go. Don’t let it change the way you’re doing things.

“Even when you’re having tough times, you’re never going to get out of those tough times if you keep doubting yourself. You’ve always got to trust that the next kick is going to go in.”

As a student of the craft, McNulty marvels at Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who is the most accurate kicker in NFL history and a perfect 22-for-22 on game-winning kicks in the last minute of regulation or overtime. Tucker was recently the subject of a profile in The New York Times Magazine, in which author Wil S. Hilton wrote of the “biomechanical exactitude” of kicking.

“Justin Tucker is so confident, he’s so consistent,” McNulty said. “He doesn’t quite have the same kicking style as me as far as the way he swings at the ball. He’s a little bit wider, and he’s a little smaller, so he has to use more whip to get the ball to go far.

“But he knows the mental preparation behind it. It’s good to listen and hear what he has to say about kicking. As far as kicking form goes, I’m a little closer to Harrison Butker (sorry, Bills fans), the Chiefs kicker.”

McNulty shares with Tucker a tireless devotion to his solitary craft, what the Times article characterized as “a relentless effort to get better.”

“He’s extremely intelligent, but his work ethic is really what sets him apart,” said Chris White, who is in his second year as UB’s special teams coordinator. No one is going to outwork this guy. He’s first one in the meetings, first one on the football field, kicking. For a kicker, that says something.

“He’s a very curious mind, which is great.”

McNulty said he’ll sit in his hotel room before a game, visualizing every aspect of his preparation for a big kick. He’ll count how many footballs he kicks into the practice net, how many “dry” swings he takes with his leg. He even imagines himself on the sideline watching the play that unfolds just before he has to go onto the field for the kick. 

“Oh, he’s a quirky guy,” said Baltar. “When I say he’s a machine kicking, he’s also kind of a machine in the rest of his life. The way he thinks is different from anyone I’ve met. He’s an interesting guy. You look at his Twitter profile. It’s @qualityreptlie. He’s really big into reptiles. He used to breed salamanders and stuff like that.”

Actually, McNulty bred leopard geckos and set up the Twitter account to sell them on-line. McNulty was on a pre-veterinary track in biology, but he’s now leaning more toward physics research. He’s currently taking a biophysics lab with Dr. Andrea Markelz in the department of physics.

His dream job? “Right now, something with physics research, developing new products, trying to come up with some products that could help advance, whether it’s medicine or engineering,” he said. “I’m still not sure exactly what field I want to focus on.

“Learning is fun,” said McNulty, a three-time All-MAC academic honoree. “I like learning things.”

Place-kicking is his dream subject for now. McNulty has another year of eligibility after this one, due to the Covid-19 exemptions. So, he’ll shatter all the school’s place-kicking records if he remains healthy. He’s still learning, still seeking perfection. Who knows how far it might take him?

“Yeah, I’d love to go play in the NFL,” he said. “I’ve got one more year here and hopefully can continue to perform at a high level and get my opportunity.”

White said it’s hard to find consistent field-goal kickers who thrive in clutch situations. If McNulty keeps making all his kicks, you don’t know what could happen. Justin Tucker wasn’t drafted, but he kept studying and learning the science of kicking until he became darn near perfect. 

That’s the beauty and the curse of a life-long learner. The more you know about a given subject, the more you realize there’s yet to understand. That’s probably why McNulty doesn’t pay attention to his grade-point average. All he knows is that it’s not perfect. 

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Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.