Ference leaving lasting impression on NIU

It’s rare to see a punter become a fan favorite, but Ference’s dedication since 2017 is being rewarded with national recognition


Courtesy of NIU Athletics

Redshirt senior punter Matt Ference practicing before kickoff on Sept. 11 at Huskie Stadium. Ference has played in 52 games since arriving at NIU in 2017.

Senior punter Matt Ference seeks to leave a lasting legacy at NIU’s football program in his final season as a Huskie.

“I just want to have been known as someone that would do anything to help the team win,” Ference said.

Ference, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, assumed punting duties during his days at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri.

“I started punting my freshman year of high school,” Ference said. “Growing up, I played soccer and was the kicker for my middle school team. It just naturally evolved into punting as well.”

A few weeks prior to National Signing Day, members of former head coach Rod Carey’s coaching staff visited Wildwood and presented Ference with a preferred walk-on offer. This type of offer indicates that the coach wants to recruit a player but cannot offer any financial assistance for at least the first year, according to the NCAA website.

“I accepted the spot and committed here and bet on myself,” Ference said. “I thought I could earn the starting spot and end up being on scholarship. The bet paid off.”

Although punters do not spend much time on the field during games, they play a crucial role in the success of a football team.

  • Matt is definitely a guy that (scouts) have marked down as a prospect that they’re going to be targeting. There’s definitely some NFL interest in him. If he continues doing what he’s doing this season, he’ll have a great opportunity.

    — Dan Jackson, special teams coordinator

“(Punting) can really affect the game in terms of field position,” Ference said. “The whole name of our game is to pin opposing offenses as far back as we can and give our defense the best chance to get the ball back.”

Since his freshman year in 2017, Ference has seen almost an entire roster turnover and a head coaching change from Carey to Thomas Hammock. In his fifth year as a Huskie, he believes that the biggest change to NIU’s football program since his arrival has been in the team culture.

“I’m excited to come to the facility every day because of the close-knit relationships between the players and the coaching staff,” Ference said. “It feels like a family.”

As a punter, Ference works closely with redshirt sophomore kicker John Richardson and redshirt junior long snapper Erik Abrell as members of the special teams unit.

“It’s definitely a strong bond,” Abrell said. “It’s not something you see really throughout the country when you have three specialists who have been together for (four years).”

As a student-athlete at NIU, Ference has shown that he applies an equal amount of effort and commitment to his athletic and academic careers.

“Matt is very work-oriented,” Richardson said. “Even on the bus rides to the games, he’s sticking his head into his PowerPoints right on his computer. He’s just really big into the business world, real estate, stocks, anything like that. He just loves that kind of stuff.”

Although a professional on the field and in the classroom, Ference has been described as having a “sporadic” personality.

“He’ll come in, and he’ll be super hyper, getting everyone going,” Abrell said. “Other days, he’s much more relaxed, much more serious. It’s always fun having him in the locker room.”

Year-in and year-out, Ference has demonstrated his work ethic to members of his unit and the team as a whole.

“There isn’t much that we can do as specialists that’ll show the other players that we’re doing stuff out at practice,” Richardson said. “But Matt’s always doing something that grabs the attention of everyone else. They just know that he’s out there working, trying to get better every day.”

Special teams coordinator Dan Jackson has worked with Ference since arriving at NIU in March 2020. 

Looking back on his time coaching Ference, Jackson recalled his favorite memory of him that dates back to the 2020 season.

“We have a juice drum, so anytime the offense or defense makes a big play, we beat a drum at practice,” Jackson said. “All last fall, Matt wanted to be the guy that was hitting the drum. He brings a ton of energy.”

Based on his consistent performance on the field, Ference has been turning heads from the National Football League.

“Matt is definitely a guy that (scouts) have marked down as a prospect that they’re going to be targeting,” Jackson said. “There’s definitely some NFL interest in him. If he continues doing what he’s doing this season, he’ll have a great opportunity.”

This season, Ference has placed himself in contention for the Senior CLASS award. Nominees are selected based on “excellence in the four Cs of community, classroom, character and competition,” as stated on the Senior CLASS award website.

Ference is also currently on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which honors the best collegiate punter in the nation. 

“It’s a great feeling,” Ference said. “I just want to thank my coaches and parents for all the support and for the help they’ve given me throughout my five years here.”

The fifth-year punter will leave NIU as its all-time leading punter, currently averaging 41.7 yards per punt on 293 career attempts. With 52 games played in his career thus far, the veteran Huskie has yet to miss a game.

The 22-year-old earned his degree in marketing in 2020 and his Master of Business Administration this past spring. He hopes to pursue a career in either sales or finance once his football career has reached its conclusion.

Ference will see his next game action when the Huskies travel to Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to square off against conference rival Central Michigan University. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium on ESPNU.