It’s never easy being a rookie in the National Football League.
So much about football that becomes second nature in college remains prevalent but requires new approaches. Getting acclimated to a new team means relationships have to be reforged. A playbook full of new ways to see and play the game needs to be relearned.
For most rookies, there’s a long development curve that allows you to get up to speed with professional life. Standard protocol for first-year players is to spend a good chunk of their first months as a member of the second or third teams, focusing on growing in practice and not performing in games.
That wasn’t the case for Notre Dame ‘23 alumnus and current New Orleans Saints rookie Blake Grupe.
Grupe plays kicker, a position where the concept of backups or reserves is alien on professional rosters. None of the NFL’s 32 teams employ more than one kicker on their active roster. For Grupe, the focus was merely keeping himself on the roster by the end of training camp. He faced a tough battle for the lone roster spot as well: going head-to-head with seven-year league veteran, William “Wil” Lutz.
Grupe stressed a day-to-day approach in training camp, slowly but surely gaining steam in his upset bid to be named starting kicker.
“It was a true competition,” said Grupe. “We went at it every day. You knew you had to bring it. Wil Lutz, he's been a good kicker for this organization and in this league for a long time. So I knew every single day I had to bring it and treat every day like it's my last, and just go out there and try to maximize the opportunity.”
In the end, Grupe prevailed. The Saints traded Lutz to the Denver Broncos on Aug. 29, just over a week before the season’s first game. Grupe was the only kicker left standing on the roster and made his first official start in September with an Opening Day win over the Titans.
Grupe proved instrumental in that win, as well. The former Irishman converted on all three of his field goal attempts in the one-point win, including one from 52 yards out. That blast, his final of the day to tie the game at nine in the third quarter, ranks as one of the ten longest field goals made over the first two weeks of the NFL season.
Grupe’s poise no doubt played a role in his flawless debut. His goal was to simply approach his first regular season NFL kick like he would any other, he said. “I got off to a good start. It didn't necessarily feel too crazy. Just tried to treat it like every other kick I’ve had. Just go out there and execute,” said Grupe.
His ability to execute under pressure made Grupe stand out to the Saints in his preseason audition with the team. He drained a 31-yard field goal as time expired to help the Saints take down the Chiefs in their first preseason game.
Grupe’s preseason debut wasn’t all game-winners and celebrations, though. The 5-foot-7-inch, 156 pound rookie was mistaken for a fan by security both when he tried to enter the field and leave the stadium — his first “welcome to the NFL.”
Grupe’s maturity and willingness to laugh at the slight from stadium security is unsurprising given his considerable experience for a first-year player: He joined the Saints following a six-year college career, he started for the better portion of five of those years — though only playing one year for the Irish.
Arriving at Notre Dame as a graduate transfer for the 2022 campaign following a successful undergraduate career with Arkansas State, Grupe left Jonesboro as the Red Wolves’ all-time leader in field goals made, extra points made, and total scoring.
Though Grupe’s time with the Irish was short, he made a sizable impact. He converted on over 73% of his field goal attempts, and he didn’t miss an extra point on the season. His season-long 47-yard field goal helped Notre Dame tie the game in the fourth quarter against California, a contest the Irish would eventually escape to avoid a disastrous 0-3 start.
Grupe credits his lone year in South Bend with helping him prepare himself for his professional career:
“Notre Dame allowed me to grow on and off the field and prepared me for this,” said Grupe. “This opportunity I'm going through right now, you know, I chose to enter the portal and transfer somewhere to prepare myself for [that]. And coming to a new city and new coaches, new players, new locker room, new competition, and playing big time games… those are all reasons why I went to Notre Dame. They're making this bridge over into NFL life much easier on me due the fact that I transferred last year to such a good place.”
What’s next for the rookie?
That remains to be seen, as the 2023 season is still young. The Saints are currently 2-1 and look the part of a contender in a wide-open NFC South. As of Sept. 26, he was 6-7 on field goals and 5-5 on extra points, positioning himself as a very important piece on a team that could continue playing come postseason.