- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
USC walk-on punter Kyle Negrete may have surprised Trojans fans when he grabbed the starting position last spring and held onto it, despite a push from scholarship freshman Kris Albarado in the fall. But to those who had the best view in watching it unfold -- namely, special teams coordinator John Baxter -- earning the role was hardly a shock.
Baxter knows Negrete dating back to the redshirt junior's high school career at Fresno Clovis West, when Negrete racked up 105 tackles and eight interceptions as a senior linebacker to go along with a 46.7-yard punting average. Baxter was serving as an assistant coach at nearby Fresno State. Several years later, the two were joined at USC and clicked immediately -- Negrete buying into everything Baxter was looking for on special teams, and Baxter realizing who Negrete has become.
"He's completely taken advantage of his opportunity of being at USC," Baxter said of his punter. "The bottom line is he's productive as a player. He's a great leader. He's a great teammate. He's a great friend. He's a great example."
Though Negrete is still a walk-on, he's managed to squeeze everything he can out of his fewer than than four semesters at USC. A starting spot on the football team is only part of it.
"He's embraced the Trojan family," Baxter said. "He's using USC the proper way. One of the things we say here is that if you can't build a network at USC, you can't build on. And he's here doing that. I wish every student-athlete and every person that came to USC approached this opportunity to the way he has, because he's getting everything he can out of it."
On the field, Negrete assumed the first-team punter position last spring as virtually the only punter on the roster. But it became apparent early in fall camp that he wasn't going to move aside for Albarado, and the coaches took notice.
"This program is based on competition," Baxter said. "Who pays the bill at the registrar's office has nothing to do with who goes between the lines. He was ready and able to take advantage of the opportunity."
Though Negrete's yards per punt didn't threaten the conference leaders, he excelled at keeping the ball away from opposing returners -- a mandatory skill for Baxter's punters. He also provided one of the highlights of the season, scrambling 35 yards on a fake punt against Washington, which swung momentum to USC's sideline for good.
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