He's Been Around The Block
BERKELEY – Nick Alftin's road to special team heroics began at Mountain View Volleyball Club.
Alftin is one of only 10 players in the nation to record two blocked punts this season. His second block came last Saturday during the Cal football team's 39-25 victory over Oregon State, and directly led to a Bears touchdown on the ensuing possession.
Before Alftin was ever blocking footballs, he was blocking volleyballs. He hails from a volleyball family – his sister, Christine, played at Cal from 2014-17 – and began playing the sport at the age of nine.
Primarily an opposite hitter, Alftin was often charged with trying to block the opposing team's best outside hitter. The blocking techniques he applied to volleyball have helped him make a significant impact on the Bears' special teams unit this season.
"I learned the hand placement from volleyball," Alftin said. "Every day in high school, you work on blocking and the hand placement. In volleyball, when they are hitting against you, you try and pin the ball on their hitting arm. It's the same with football – you try to pin your arm right on their kicking leg, and try to get it low so you get the most contact you can."
Alftin's first blocked punt came during the first quarter of Cal's 21-6 loss to Washington State on Oct. 2, as he shredded a block and smothered the ball off the foot of Cougars punter Nick Haberer. Then last Saturday against the Beavers, Alftin got deep penetration before reaching over Oregon State's Jake Overman and getting his elbow on the ball punted by the Beavers' Luke Loecher. Cal quarterback Chase Garbers threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Trevon Clark on the very next play to put the Bears up, 31-17, with five seconds left in the third quarter.
"That's why he's in that position," Cal special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle said. "There is a big correlation between the hand-eye coordination that is required for both football and volleyball. The biggest thing when you block a punt is having the ability to locate the football with your eyes and then track it with your hands. You can have length, you can have speed, you can have quickness – but if you aren't able to track the ball, it doesn't matter."
Alftin has made his way around the Cal football meeting rooms. He came to the Bears as an outside linebacker and made one start at that position in 2019. He moved to tight end later that season, and that remains his primary position.
But it is in the special teams meeting room where Alftin has thrived, and that's just the way he likes it.
"His approach to special teams has been infectious," Ragle said. "His mentality and his desire to get on special teams makes a difference. When other guys see him, they may think they may not be starting on offense or defense, but I can still have a huge impact on the game. You get more guys that have that mentality on special teams and you're going to have a pretty good football team."
Alftin is also part of the Bears' kickoff and kick return units, and his experience playing on both sides of the ball has helped develop his versatility as a special teams player.
"You have to block on one half of the units and then you have to go cover on the other half. I think the diversity for him on being on both sides helps," Ragle said. "Getting off of blocks like a linebacker is great for him on kickoff. Then obviously on kick return, being able to fit guys up and block them is what he does from the tight end spot. I think that has a lot of merit to him having some success."
The volleyball-football combination is a rare one in college, but this season Alftin has some company. Jeffrey Johnson, a freshman outside linebacker from Manhattan Beach, also did the volleyball-football double in high school.
"My teammates in high school made fun of me – a volleyball player playing football? They had never head of it," Johnson said. "It made me a feel a lot better when I heard that Nick played. I admire him so much because he's not starting on offense or defense, but he knows he can help the team on special teams. He makes such big plays, and his energy always translates to other players."
Alftin said he talked with a few major college volleyball programs while playing for Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, but a football offer from Cal ended his volleyball career.
"This was my dream since my freshman year of high school," Alftin said. "The person to my left and my right is who I am winning for, and the people in my locker room are all amazing. I'm willing to do anything for them, and I think they'd be willing to do anything for me, too."