SAN DIEGO — Three years ago last spring, walk-on Wayne Ross was told that he would never make it as a major-college punter.
The San Diego State coaching staff was so thoroughly convinced of Ross' inadequacy that it gave a scholarship to a high school punter, Tom Locatello of San Jose. Ross could stick around if he wanted to, but Locatello would do the Aztecs' punting for the next four seasons.
Or so Doug Scovil, former SDSU coach, and his assistants thought. Ross, however, has proved them wrong, and has become one of the country's leading punters.
After 3 1/2 seasons as the Aztecs' punter, Ross, a fifth-year senior from Tulare, Calif., is averaging 41.7 yards in 222 career kicks. In order, his season averages have been 42.8, 42.1 and 40.3. His current average is 41.6. Such consistency attracts pro scouts.
Despite the success, Ross wasn't given a scholarship until last season, when Denny Stolz became the coach.
Before he took the practice field the other day, Ross talked about the ups and downs of his early years at San Diego State. He recalled the 1984 pronouncement by Gary Zauner, then the Aztecs' special teams coach, now on the staff at New Mexico, that he had no future in NCAA Division I football.
"I had been redshirted as a freshman in '83," Ross said. "I had been an all-league safety and punter in high school, plus (a) wide receiver. When I got here, I was exclusively a strong safety, and I was fourth or fifth string. I usually played tight end on the scout team.
"One day, a bunch of guys were sick, so I scrimmaged at strong safety. I intercepted a pass, but I caught a foot in the ground and rolled over an ankle. By the time I got back, I had gained weight, and I started punting more and more and playing safety less and less.
"In spring practice of '84, I was the only punter on the squad. I punted for both sides in the annual Red-Black Game between the varsity and alumni. But when the coaches gave each player an evaluation, Zauner said he didn't think I had it. He said I wasn't consistent enough.
"I had enough confidence in myself that I didn't agree. When they brought in a scholarship punter, I saw that as a challenge. I beat him out before the '84 season started.
"It was funny. They also had two scholarship kickers, and Charlie O'Brien beat them out. We had two walk-ons kicking and three scholarship guys sitting."
Of having to wait so long for a scholarship, Ross said: "I got caught up in a numbers game. They felt that they couldn't afford to give any more scholarships to kickers. It's easy to reason that out now, but it didn't sit too well with me then.
"In my freshman year, there was a time when I was ranked sixth in the nation. I asked them in the spring of '85, and they told me to wait. I waited, but nothing happened.
"A year later, I asked again. They said, 'Not right now.' I could have left, but that wouldn't have done any good. So I kept on working to help pay my way.
"Finally, in the spring of '86, a lot of people on scholarship were through, and it was just like I was a high school kid being signed."
Ross now has neither a special teams coach nor a backup punter, but he is such a perfectionist that there is no danger of complacency.
"I've got 10 other guys counting on me," he said. "I've got the defense counting on me, and I've got the coaching staff counting on me. If I don't perform my best, I'm not giving them a fair shake."
Ross also is pleased with his new assignment as the holder for the kicks of Tyler Ackerson, a community college transfer from Chula Vista.
"It's fun because it keeps me in the game," Ross said. "We're together all the time in practice anyway, so it's more of a natural mix. I've held a lot in practice in the past, and I used to be terrible. Jim Plum was the regular holder, and when he graduated, I started taking it seriously."
At 6-feet 3-inches and 205 pounds, Ross has gone through his entire college career without having a punt blocked.
"I'm a two-step punter, and I get the ball away pretty fast," he said. "When the rush is coming, I hurry it up a little bit without altering my step.
"The big thing for me now is to improve my hang time. I've got to strengthen my leg. I've been running and working with weights, and that seems to be helping quite a bit."
Finally, Ross addressed his chances of punting in the National Football League.
"I think I could punt with those people," he said. "Mike Saxon punted here ahead of me, and he's with the Dallas Cowboys. But you have to remember that pro punters are a select few. There's only one position on a team, not like running backs or defensive backs."