As the football season becomes closer and closer to arriving (less than three weeks), we start to get a little anxious. The NFL preseason is underway, as is the training camp for college football. This is one of the busiest times for college players as twice a day they have practice to get ready for the upcoming season. Practices at Michigan are no different, but nonetheless, punter Zoltan Mesko took some time out of his very busy schedule to answer some questions from the Michigan Sports Center.
Mesko was redshirted in 2005, and has a leg that is equivalent to a cannon. Although Ross Ryan had the starting job last season, Mesko is working very hard to have that role in 2006. All that and more is discussed in the interview, so let’s not waste any more time and get to it.
Michigan Sports Center: Growing up as a kid, what led you to playing football, and at what age did you first start punting?
Zoltan Mesko: Growing up as a kid I was always playing soccer. Living in Romania, that’s all I ever played with my friends. Soccer is really popular in Europe so it wasn’t an option, and I would say that that is the way I learned how to kick the ball. My gym teacher first noticed my leg strength while we were playing kickball in gym class (8th grade), and he ended up recommending me to the high school football coach. The next year I was playing high school football.
MSC: Many Michigan fans out there are wondering this, so I’ll just get it out of the way and ask it now. Where did the name “Zoltan” come from?
ZM: Well my name is Hungarian and it was originally derived from Turkey (the country) when the Ottoman Empire attacked Hungary. My name is derived from “Sultan”….which is a King in Turkey. You may recall they called Babe Ruth ‘the Sultan of Swat’. So Zoltan, a little variation from ‘Sultan’, means King.
MSC: What was it like to be recruited by some of the most-prestigious colleges in the entire country?
ZM: It was definitely an exiting feeling to be given all that attention, but since then that hype has been really settled down.
MSC: Living in Ohio, was there any pressure to attend Michigan arch-rival Ohio State?
ZM: There was a huge amount of pressure from my friends and even random people that I was meeting every day, but I didn’t make much of it. Michigan caught my attention real quick after I saw what a great place it was and still is.
MSC: What was the biggest reason you chose to commit to Michigan?
ZM: Michigan was the first prestigious program to notice what I brought to the table, so I honored their interest in me. I couldn’t turn down Coach Carr…he’s a great coach.
MSC: Did you learn anything last season when you were redshirted that will help/better prepare you for this upcoming season?
ZM: Yes, I have learned numerous things. I believe I have become a lot more coachable, more humble, and I have also gained a lot of irreplaceable experience from the past year.
MSC: Describe the feeling of running out and touching the banner in front of 110,000+ fans before a game at Michigan Stadium.
ZM: It is one of the best feelings you can feel. You get such an adrenaline rush from those 110,000 voices in the Big House that it just overwhelms you. It’s something that cannot be put into words.
MSC: Ross Ryan was the starting punter in 2005, and is returning again this season. As of right now, is he still the starter, and if not, what did you do in the offseason to overtake him for the starting job?
ZM: Ross Ryan did a great job for us last year, and me and him have become great friends. We are in a tight race right now in camp, and I without a question in my mind believe that this competition is going to make us both better, and whoever starts will be more than ready to handle the job and help the team win.
MSC: Kicker Garrett Rivas has one year of eligibility left. Have you ever had any thoughts of becoming the place-kicker after he graduates?
ZM: I don’t believe that I will try and kick FG’s because we have some excellent backup kickers that will follow in Garrett’s footsteps. But if I get called on to do it then I will.
MSC: What is it like to punt to the explosive Steve Breaston, who is one of the best returners in the entire country? Is there anything you do to try and limit a long return with someone who has so much speed?
ZM: Steve is unbelievably athletic and that is obvious. He’s got the speed, the vision, and the agility to take it to the House on every punt. So I just try to hang it up as high as I can, which is something I did not do last year. He’s great to practice against to get Ross and I ready for that speedster from the Buckeye state.
MSC: After a disappointing 7-5 season, what has the coaching staff done to try and get that record back up near the nation’s best?
ZM: The coaching has changed up quite a bit this year and I believe that they have committed themselves fully on improving on last year. Another thing we have become is a much better conditioned team. This year we have the confidence that we will be able to finish the game and then some (if we go to OT).
MSC: Talk about what type of coach Lloyd Carr is.
ZM: I believe Coach Carr is a really great Coach. He’s a very intelligent person, who emphasizes academics fully. He is a great motivator and leader. I am honestly proud to be coached by him.
MSC: What games catch your eye on this year’s schedule?
ZM: Probably the three away games we have…ND, PSU, and of course OSU. But we cannot just focus ourselves on these games, and the coaches have emphasized that, because any opponent can be a dangerous one.
MSC: What is the longest you’ve ever punted a football in your career?
ZM: I had a 71 yard punt from the line of scrimmage in HS, but my mindset has changed from getting those long booming punts. The coaches want Ross and I to put it as high as we can while still getting 40 to 45 yards on our kicks. What good is it to punt the ball 71 yards when it’s going to go 80 yards the other way for a score? I want to do as much as I can this year to improve this team.
MSC: After Michigan, do you plan on playing in the NFL?
ZM: Well it would be nice, but I just got to focus on the present now at U of M. #1 is winning and getting my degree….the rest will take care of itself.
MSC: Last one. Has anything interesting happened so far in this year’s camp?
ZM: I would say nothing too interesting has happened in this year’s camp so far, but I can definitely feel that we have all have a more focused and enthusiastic approach to the game this year. We are hungry to get back to playing Michigan football. We are hungry for that Big Ten Championship. GO BLUE!
Thanks again to Zoltan Mesko for the interview, and good luck to him in the 2006 season.