Among a group of four- and five-star prospects, David Olano was the smallest player on the field during All-American Bowl practices. Such is the life of a kicker.
But throughout the week, Olano — a three-star Naperville (Ill.) North kicker who signed a national letter of intent with Illinois last month — tried to prove he belonged among college football’s top recruits.
“Most of the guys that whole week leading up could pick out who the kicker was,” Olano told Illini Inquirer with a chuckle. “But just in practice a couple times, I was able to hit a couple deep kicks. I guess that time in the game was when I could show it off to everyone.”
Olano proved why Illinois invested a scholarship offer into him as a prep prospect — few kickers receive power-five scholarship offers out of high schools — on live network television on Saturday. During the All-American Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Olano sent a 50-yard field goal through the uprights. He later made a 36-yard field goal as well and put most of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
For Olano, the game broadcasted live on NBC was a culmination of intense training for the past year and a half since he decided to drop playing his Colombian family’s favorite sport, soccer, to kick the oblong pigskin. For Olano, it was affirmation that he belongs on football’s biggest stages.
“It was surreal. It was definitely surreal,” Olano said. “In an all-star game as a kicker, you kind of want to show as much as you can. I think that was the perfect example of what I can do. I wasn’t just hitting another PAT. It was kind of a far field goal, so it was kind of surreal to hit a field goal like that on that kind of stage.
“I really didn’t get a chance to go back that far in my two seasons at North. So getting that shot in that type of game kind of all paid out.”
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Olano was part of an East squad that dominated the West 55-17 in an All-American Bowl that featured 100 of the country’s top high school prospects. West quarterback Dante Moore, a five-star UCLA signee, earned the MVP award after passing for 156 yards in two quarters.
“It was definitely a great experience, definitely one I’ll never forget,” Olano said. “All the [players] are the ones you see all over social media. The best players in the country. Just to be able to share the field with them, hang out with them and build relationships was definitely an unforgettable experience.”
Olano wasn’t the only Illini signee participating in the game. Though, Malik Elzy didn’t let everyone know he was an Illini signee until midway through Saturday’s first helped. Elzy signed a national letter but kept it quiet until Saturday when he announced he would attend Illinois live on the NBC broadcast, picking up an Illini hat over hats of Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Michigan and Tennessee.
Olano knew Elzy was Illinois-bound. But shortly after kicking his 50-yard field goal, Olano ran over to the table where Elzy was announcing his commitment to congratulate his new Illini teammate.
“I kind of knew it for a little time, but I kinda kept it silent because he wanted to announce it for the game,” Olano said. “But he kinda told me it was going to happen at halftime, so I was waiting for that. Right after I kicked that field goal, I looked up at the screen and saw Malik was declaring so I had to run over straight there in the middle of the kickoff and supported him. Just picking up that has meant a lot because he kind of thought the same thing we all thought: that the best Illinois need to stay in Illinois. It was definitely a great, cool feeling that he’s going to play his next years in his home state.
“It’s definitely a product of what Coach B is building at the program. It’s only up from there. Just to see someone that highly recruited believe in Coach B and the program just means a lot and just shows us we’re in the right direction heading forward.”
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After returning home from San Antonio, Olano quickly must pack his bags again because he is scheduled to start his college career this week. An early enrollee at Illinois, Olano will report to Champaign on Wednesday and start training with the Illini staff.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet moment because I leave half of my senior year and just kind of leaving for a new step in my life,” Olano said. “But also, it’s definitely one of the most exciting moments in my life to kind of start this whole new chapter of being in a college football program and being on campus. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about for a while, so it’s definitely super exciting for me to finally getting there and get adjusted with everything.”
Olano, the No. 10 kicker in the Class of 2023 according to Kohl’s Kicking, will attempt to push sixth-year senior Caleb Griffin for a role immediately. Olano was recruited mostly by former Illinois special teams analyst Greg Froelich, who now is the special teams coach at Charlotte, but said he has recently been in frequent contact with Illini special teams coordinator Ben Miller, who took a personal medical leave this past season but is hopeful to return to his full duties this spring.
“As a kicker, a spot’s never certain, so they’re just having me come in and competing for everything really,” Olano said. “They think with me coming in, it’ll definitely build up the team room and the specialists and have more competition. I’m just coming in working for spring ball and trying to fight for the spot either for kickoff, PAT or field goal, anything that they have me or want me to do, I’m all for it. Just going in there and seeing what I can give back to the team.”
While Olano wants to compete with Griffin, the incoming freshman kicker said Griffin has been extremely supportive of him throughout his recruiting process. Olano hopes to take advantage of his one season alongside Griffin.
With Griffin expected to return for another season and an All-American freshman in Olano, the Illini kicking game appears to be on good footing for the short- and long-term future.
“He’s almost like a big brother to me. He’s a mentor,” Olano said. “He’s one of the first college kickers I ever got to know. We have the same trainer here in Chicago. He’s been super supportive of what I’ve done, supporting me in the game and the high school games. Kind of building that relationship with him because I feel like him coming back for another is not only going to help the team out, but it’s going to help me out also to learn from someone who’s played in these games and having someone to learn from. The relationship with him is super good. At the end of the day, you’re teammates. You’ll compete day to day, but it’s the teammate bond and everything that I value with him.”
Without a shadow of a doubt. @DavidOlano_ drills a 50-yard field goal at the @AABonNBC.#Illini // #HTTO // #famILLy pic.twitter.com/io5EQ0mP71
— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) January 7, 2023