Former NFL special teams coach, Gary Zauner sees multiple teams as matches for Canadian kicker Lirim Hajrullahu

Photo courtesy: Gary Zauner

Canadian kicker Lirim Hajrullahu understands the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic, but he won’t let it impede his goal of signing an NFL contract.

Since performing well at coach Gary Zauner’s 2020 free agent combine from March 8-10, Hajrullahu has been kicking at high school fields to keep his leg fresh and powerful while staying isolated from others during the COVID-19 situation.

“It was just catching onto Italy in early March, we knew Canada had a couple cases. We understand the magnitude of the coronavirus. I just tried to stay focused during that whole process,” Hajrullahu said.

Photo courtesy Gary Zauner

“We had 27 teams, about 40 scouts there — it’s basically a kicking pro day. A lot of the scouts saw the things I did and were very happy. I talked to about 10 to 15 teams and five were really serious.”

NFL teams flock to Arizona every year for Zauner’s combines because he’s earned a reputation for coaching and finding many of the best kickers, punters and long snappers in pro football. The 69-year-old football lifer was the first full-time special teams coordinator in the NCAA and spent 13 years in the same role with three NFL franchises.

Photo courtesy Gary Zauner

“Lirim, if I was still in the NFL, would be a very attractive kicker because he’s so accurate. He doesn’t just make them, he puts them right down the middle,” Zauner said.

“I always look for good ball strikers and if I was a blind man you can hear what a good kick sounds like. Just like with a golf ball or baseball hitter or tennis player, it’s ball-striking ability and Lirim is an excellent ball striker.”

Zauner has worked with Canadian kickers and punters such as Mike Vanderjagt, Jon Ryan and Mitch Berger. He felt the NFL Combine wasn’t doing a proper job of bringing in the top kickers, punters and long snappers to perform in front of scouts, so he created his own combines.

“I’ve created my field of dreams for kicking specialists, like in the baseball movie, to achieve their dream. The NFL was not very good at scouting punters, kickers and snappers,” Zauner said.

“After retiring from the NFL I decided that with my talent of finding great punters and kickers I would create the combines. The coaches all come here because they can see the best talent.”

Former Hamilton Tigers-Cats and Ottawa Redblacks’ kicker Brett Maher was one of the success stories from Zauner’s combine. He earned a contract with Dallas and played 29 games for the Cowboys during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

“There’s a Cowboys scout, his name is Henry Sroka and he loves taking guys from my combine. He basically came here and he got Brett Maher,” Zauner said.

“Now with Lirim, I would think the Cowboys need a field goal kicker. Also the Colts and the Falcons, I don’t think are solidified. There could be some other teams that are still looking for great field goal kickers.”

Hajrullahu’s field goal conversion rate is higher than Maher’s was in the CFL — 83.3 compared to 78.1. In four out of six seasons in Canada the Western University product has made over 85 percent of his three-point attempts.

“I want to play the best in the NFL, right now that’s the highest league in terms of football. I feel like I’m where I need to be in order to compete with some of these guys. I know I can play at that level. The CFL and the NFL talent — the difference is very minuscule,” Hajrullahu said.

“The steps are, you do well at this camp, scouts talk to you and bring you in when they have their specialist workouts. They’re not going to look at you once and sign you right away, without NFL experience.”

There are NFL teams who want to bring Hajrullahu in for workouts. He worked out for the Seattle Seahawks in January 2019. However, the travel shutdown for coronavirus has put the sessions on hold.

“I’m just trying to stay locked in and when that time does come and we overcome this COVID-19, I’ll be fully prepared,” Hajrullahu said.

Hajrullahu signed a two-year contract extension through the 2020 season last April. The 2019 East Division all-star was grateful for the Ticats allowing him the opportunity to pursue his NFL dream. 

“Through this whole process — I had another year left on my contract — because of the whole CBA situation for us not being released between December and January, they’ve done me a favour in terms of releasing me when it came down to it,” Hajrullahu said.

“Hamilton would be the first people I talk to and we left it off as, ‘Hey, if you do come back, please keep us in the loop and please let us know.’ Once the time comes, I’m going to connect with them and if they’re willing to have me back, that’s my number one spot.”

After being the only national in the CFL who handled all kicking duties for a franchise last season, Hajrullahu is aiming to become the only active Canadian kicker in the NFL.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.