How Andrew Franks engineered a path from Rensselaer to the Miami Dolphins

Kicking in the snow enabled Andrew Franks to land a gig in South Beach.

RPI Athletics

When Sean Conerly was hired in 2013 to oversee the defensive line and special teams units at Division III Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the former defensive tackle got an impressive initial scouting report of his starting kicker, Andrew Franks.

"The quote that I was told when I took over was, ‘If you put a trash barrel in the end zone and you tell Andrew to kick off a ball and have it land in the trash barrel, he’s going to do it,’" Conerly told FOX Sports. "They said, ‘He can do it, he’s that good.’"

Conerly never did break out the trash cans to validate the rumors about Franks’ freakish abilities, but over the next two seasons, Franks confirmed them on the field by rewriting the RPI record books — and with a 61.2-yard average on kickoffs and nearly a half dozen 50-yard field goals to his name, he more than proved that he had a Division I leg.

Franks’ reputation earned him a training camp invite from the Miami Dolphins, which he turned into an unlikely job as the team’s starting kicker after he beat out incumbent Caleb Sturgis in August. Franks is the first RPI alum to play in the NFL, and as the biomedical engineering grad continues to rack up points, he’s also helping to dispel the notion that smart kids can’t play football.

"It’s not something that most people think about when they think of a football player," Franks told FOX Sports of his education last week, in advance of a flawless performance in Miami’s 38-10 win over the Titans. "But I think it’s something that can be really helpful."

A native of Carmel, Calif., Franks’ decision to attend the small engineering school of about 7,000 students in Troy, N.Y., was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Franks was already on the East Coast visiting Ivy League campuses when he got a call from his mother, Beth, urging him to make a detour through RPI, as well.

"There’s a boom that comes out of the ball that’s totally different than anything that you’ve heard from any other kickers."

RPI coach Ralph Isernia

"They had a brand new stadium, brand new facilities, and they had the major I wanted," said Franks, who was set on continuing to play football in college despite fracturing his skull in a 7-on-7 tournament the summer before his senior year of high school. "So I stopped by there and I thought it was an awesome place when I first showed up, and I figured it would be great backup plan for me if things don’t go well in terms of going to a bigger program."

As time went on, however, the prospect of RPI became more and more appealing, and Franks, who aspires to one day design hip and joint replacements, decided to abandon the pursuit of a walk-on role at an FBS program for a chance to play from Day One — and get a coveted degree — at RPI.

"The bottom line is that, first and foremost, a kid is coming to RPI because he wants a world class education," RPI head coach Ralph Isernia said. "He wants a premier education that’s going to produce an $85,000 to $95,000 starting salary when he graduates. And I think when you tell the story of Andrew Franks, that was really the thing that drove him to RPI, was the education first."

During his freshman campaign, Franks made four of his six field goal attempts with a long of 36 yards, and as a sophomore, Franks went 8-of-14 and set a school record with a 50-yarder against Union College. The spring after Franks’ second season, RPI hired Isernia, the team’s fifth coach in four years, and from the outset, Isernia said he could hear Franks’ potential.

"It was the first day we had practice, and Andrew was out there kicking, and you really didn’t need to see where the ball was going," Isernia said. "All you needed to do was just hear the ball coming off his foot, because it’s a different sound. There’s a boom that comes out of the ball that’s totally different than anything that you’ve heard from any other kickers. As soon as you hear that, you know how much power he’s got in his leg. So we knew exactly what we had with him."

That summer, Franks also had a chance meeting with former UCLA kicker Justin Medlock, who spent time in the NFL with the Chiefs and Panthers. Franks spent several days working out at RPI with Medlock, and that, Franks said, is when he first began to believe that he might be able to turn kicking into a career.

"Watching him kick, I saw the same distance, similar balls to what I was kicking as a soon-to-be junior in college," Franks said. "Watching my kickoffs, mine were going just as far as his, and that really got my mind thinking, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’"

Ti-Cats kicker Justin Medlock mentored Franks.

"He was just a big, strong, very raw kid," added Medlock, now kicking with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. "He could lift a ton, he had a very fast leg, so I think that was one of the things that kind of stood out to me real fast. He obviously needed a little bit of work, but the next two years he had a good couple years and continued to grow and continued to get better."

With a newfound motivation, Franks continued to build his resume during his junior and senior years, with NFL scouts often dropping by RPI to see if the rumors about Franks were true, just as they had with RPI quarterback Mike Hermann a couple years prior.

In 2013, Franks went 9-of-11 on field goal tries, including a 5-for-5 game against Alfred University. Then as a senior, he broke his own school record with a 54-yard field goal against Hobart and went 16-of-25 overall, his numbers skewed by bouts of poor protection and a host of long attempts. (Of his nine misses, two were blocked and five of the remaining seven were from 45 yards or farther, including attempts of 52 and 55 yards.)

After his senior season ended, Franks found himself working to improve, braving brutal upstate New York winter conditions to kick when no one else dared to step outside. The extra effort was not lost on his coaches, either.

"A couple days after Thanksgiving, it’s snowing, and he’s outside with his sticks, a couple balls and a shovel, just clearing out small pieces of ground so he can work on his kicks, his steps, and get better at the small, meticulous details," said Conerly, now an assistant at Colby College. "He went through field goals and kickoffs, and that preparation, every single day, is what put him over the top. His leg strength, his natural ability, those things were there and were special for the D-III level, but he 100 percent worked himself into an NFL-caliber player."

If you ask Franks, though, he’ll tell you kicking in the snow was nothing special. It was just part of the process.

"It didn’t matter what season it was, I wanted to work and I wanted to improve," Franks said. "So if it was 95 degrees and sunny outside, I was going to kick then, and if there was a foot of snow on the field, I was still going to kick. I was still going to try to maintain the same regimen regardless of what the weather is. You never know what the field is going to be like in game day, so I figured I might as well get used to it now and try to get better no matter what."

Eventually, RPI hosted a Pro Day for scouts from the Bills, Raiders and Chargers, but it wasn’t until Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi traveled to New York for a meeting that Franks felt at ease with his future. The pair went out for pizza, at which point Rizzi assured Franks that Miami would bring him in if he went undrafted, and finally, Franks could rest easy knowing he’d at least have a chance to show what he could do in the NFL.

Andrew Franks has a powerful leg.

"After talking with Rizzi, sort of getting to know him on a personal level, everything he said, I thought, was very truthful, very straightforward," Franks said. "He gave me a good impression that I could excel in this league, and I think that was sort of a moment of relief in that regard. Until then, it was hard to say if anyone was even going to invite me to a rookie minicamp."

During the preseason, Franks made all three of his field goal tries, including a 51-yarder against Atlanta, and his kickoffs averaged 66 yards, with eight touchbacks in 10 attempts. Sturgis, meanwhile, made both of his field goal attempts and averaged 65.3 yards on his seven kickoffs, but just three went for touchbacks, and ultimately the team decided Franks would be their guy.

Said former Dolphins coach Joe Philbin at the time: "You’ve got to trust your eyes."

And in the weeks since, Franks has hardly given the Dolphins reason to doubt their decision, despite the team’s early season struggles, which led to Philbin’s firing earlier this month. So far, Franks has made four of five field goals with a long of 48 — his only miss came on a 42-yarder against Jacksonville in Week 2 — and has converted 11 of 12 extra points, misfiring on one late in a Week 3 loss to Buffalo.

Still, Franks says he’s not content just living the dream. During his work with Medlock, Medlock hammered home the importance of continually improving, and while Franks’ degree will leave him in good shape regardless of whether kicking works out or not, he’d rather be on the field than in the lab for as long as he can make it work.

"Right after I was told I was going to be the starting kicker, it was sort of a surreal moment, but after that I realized that this is my job now and I can’t stagnate at all," Franks said. "I still have to improve, always have to get better, and I’m trying to gun for the top spot in the league. So I’m going to keep on trying to improve no matter what, and if I stop and consider this a dream at all, I don’t think it’ll be conducive to that."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.