Fauquier punter D.J. Helkowski finds heaven in Richmond Spiders football team
Fauquier kicker D.J. Helkowski, flanked by dad Doug and mom Tara, signed with the University of Richmond last week, ending a stressful recruiting process. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
Jamie Carter read aloud the punting and kicking statistics of D.J. Helkowski during a meeting of football coaches tasked with voting on all-region teams.
The Fauquier High coach saw expressions change on the faces of some people in the room.
"Their eyes would get this big," Carter said Thursday, expanding his hands in front of his face. "They probably thought I was fudging the stats, but it was the real deal. …Very impressive."
The video evidence of Helkowski's talent is strong, too. Impressive enough, in fact, for him to earn a full scholarship offer from the University of Richmond.
The senior punter accepted that scholarship last Thursday by singing a national letter of intent in Fauquier High's Falcon Room. His signature ended a strenuous recruiting process that dragged out longer than he expected.
Richmond offered the scholarship Dec. 16 and Helkowski verbally committed to the Spiders the next day.
"It was just such a relief knowing after a year of going through this process, it was finally basically over," Helkowski said. "I didn't have to keep fighting for a scholarship."
After enjoying a breakout junior season in 2012, Helkowski attended nearly a dozen college showcase camps to get exposure.
Interest followed from the likes of Rutgers, Connecticut, Old Dominion, James Madison, Maryland and Richmond. Helkowski figured that would elicit a scholarship offer by June, but none came this past summer.
Rutgers had shown enough interest in Helkowski to set up a special April showcase session for him because the punter was unable to attend an earlier camp for potential recruits.
Afterward, “one of the special teams coaches told me, 'We'll have a decision in like three days,’" Helkowski said. “A week goes by and he called me up again and told me …the head coach is trying to wait on this now.”
"Richmond offered me and I didn't have anything from Rutgers,” Helkowski said. “I just kind of realized they weren't going to offer a scholarship like they said they would.”
So Helkowski quickly committed to Richmond and then felt full relief Thursday after officially signing with the Spiders.
“It was awful,” he said of the entire recruiting process. “So many schools play around with you. … At the last second they'll tell you, 'Oh, something didn't work out, but we want you to come as a preferred walk-on.”'
Even before the scholarship offer, Richmond was high on Helkowski’s college list. The immediate impact he could have on the Spiders was a strong selling point for Richmond coaches.
Joe Gulli served as Richmond’s punter last season as a redshirt senior, but he has since graduated.
“They kind of hinted to me I'd most likely be starting as a freshman,” Helkowski said of Spiders coaches.
“The big thing they were looking for was a mentally-tough punter,” Carter said.
Helkowski plans to take a class at Richmond this summer and begin a weight lifting program there June 23. The Spiders spring practice will then begin Aug. 1.
"I think he's going to do fine,” Helkowski’s father, Doug, said.
"However,” Helkowski’s mother, Tara, said, “he's the first scholarship-ed kicking specialist there in a long time. They're expecting a lot.”
Doug Helkowski started four seasons for Penn State as a punter, 1987-91, beginning as a redshirt freshman. So he knows the challenges of transitioning quickly from high school to college.
“If it wasn't for him, obviously, I wouldn't be here right now,” D.J. Helkowski said of his dad. “He's shown me technique and all that.”
Helkowski first got significant playing time for Fauquier as a sophomore, splitting time as a kicker and punter. He quickly developed into an all-state punter, getting named to the Class 4A first team Monday as a senior after making the Group AA second team last season as a junior.
“He wasn't just a kicker to me,” Carter said. “I thought of him as a football player – real good football sense, football savvy, and mentally tough enough. There was no situation I hesitated to put him in.”
As a junior, Helkowski placed 19 of 45 punts inside the 20-yard line and averaged 37.8 yards per punt. He also made 9 of 10 field goals with a long of 39 and made 17 of 20 extra points.
This past season, Helkowski averaged 38.9 yards per punt, made 26 of 29 extra point attempts and seven of 17 field goal attempts with a long of 37.
“I went back and watched some games” on film, Carter said. “And I'm not kidding, half the games we won, he won them either by field position or field goal."
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