MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Fresh off Shark Week, Nick O’Toole could spin a harrowing yarn about the scar that loops ear-to-ear across the top of his head.
Wouldn’t be the first time he kidded folks about his shark bite. Wouldn’t be the first time someone actually believed him.
To an extent, West Virginia’s gregarious punter is lucky to be here, but not because his head found its way into the mouth of a great white.
The actual story entails his soft spot closing prematurely, leaving no room for his brain to continue expanding. So he underwent surgery as a 4-month-old whereby doctors removed a strip of his skull to alleviate pressure.
Had the surgery not occurred, O’Toole suggests “I’d probably have a really tiny head.”
Back then, his parents wondered how he’d handle teasing, but he’s entirely unbothered by the scar. Doesn’t even grow out his hair to hide it. In fact, he jokes there’s no lasting side effect from the surgery, except that “there’s probably some brain missing.”
Yet O’Toole was smart enough to realize as a freshman that he wasn’t going to make it at quarterback for Mater Dei High. So he tried playing receiver as a sophomore and eventually turned to punting, where he became a starter his last two years.
He received walk-on offers from colleges but no scholarship guarantees, so he went the cost-saving junior college route at Fullerton (Calif.) College.
“I told my parents I wanted to make it easier on them,” O’Toole said. “I really wanted a scholarship—that was my goal and after my first season at juco I had one.”
And West Virginia had itself a second-team All-Big 12 punter last season. A guy who might have been first-team if not for two gusty trips to Kansas.
“He’s got to learn how to drop the ball in the wind … to be more consistent in the wind, which he wasn’t last year, ” said special teams coach Joe DeForest. “But I’m convinced that Nick’s going to have a better year.”
O’Toole also mishit fourth-quarter punts against TCU and Texas, both of which preceded game-tying drives that forced overtime.
“Not every kick was great,” said O’Toole, whose 44.1-yard average ranked 15th nationally. “I had some bad kicks and those are the ones you want to improve on.”
He had three punts of 50-plus in the upset of Oklahoma State and pinned Oklahoma inside its 20 three times. O’Toole closed strong with a 56-yard average against Iowa State, the highest single-game average for a Mountaineers punter in 56 seasons.
“I had a great season,” he said, “but I always have something to improve on, whether it’s directional kicking or (pinning teams) inside the 20.”