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Punter took long way to Y.

After starting out at UW, McLaughlin finds way to Provo

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PROVO — It's not uncommon for an LDS missionary to get dumped by a girlfriend at some point during his two years of service. But how many missionaries receive a "Dear John" letter from their college football team while they're away?

Well, that's what happened to punter Derek McLaughlin, who officially joined BYU's program this week.

After spending two seasons at the University of Washington and then two years on a mission to Argentina, McLaughlin has landed in Provo — the place where he feels he was supposed to be playing football all along.

When he was punting at Mountain View High in Mesa, Ariz. (the same school that produced BYU quarterback John Beck), McLaughlin averaged 47 yards per punt and was recruited by Southern California, UCLA, Michigan and Washington. But not by BYU — which puzzled him.

"Ever since I was little, I'd come up to BYU games. I went to BYU football camps," he said. "I really wanted to come here, but in high school, I didn't get anything from them. I was kind of disappointed, and I went to the University of Washington."

From the outset, McLaughlin told then-Husky coach Rick Neuheisel that he planned to serve a mission and Neuheisel assured him that he would be able to play for the Huskies, serve a mission, then return to the program. However, while McLaughlin was in Argentina, Neuheisel was fired, and Keith Gilbertson (who has since been replaced by Tyrone Willingham) took over.

"With the coaching change, coach Gilbertson didn't agree with coach Neuheisel on that, so they 'Dear Johnned' me on my mission," McLaughlin said. "I was homeless for a little while."

But not for long.

After all, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior distinguished himself in his two years as Washington's starting punter. As a true freshman, he averaged 41.6 yards per punt (the highest average by a Husky punter since 1986) and earned Sporting News second-team freshman All-America honors in 2001. He even set a school record with a 74-yard punt out of his own end zone in Washington's 31-28 victory over California.

He started as a sophomore, too, but he was hampered by an injury that season. "Not a lot of people knew that," McLaughlin said. "I strained some ligaments in my right foot during the spring game that never got all the way better. I got cortisone shots so I could keep kicking. My freshman year was pretty good but not what I wanted, though. I felt like I underachieved there."

While McLaughlin was on his mission, his family received recruiting letters from a number of schools, including Oklahoma, Georgia and, of course, BYU.

"My dad would send me an e-mail once a week to tell me what was going on," he said. "When BYU offered me a scholarship, I jumped on it. It's a dream come true. I was really excited about it. I found out on a Monday, a (preparation) day. The whole day I was like, 'Wow.' It was weird. Things take care of themselves. I always felt like I should come up here and now I have the chance to do it. I felt like a fish out of water at the University of Washington. Changing the environment from the University of Washington to BYU is a noticeable difference. You walk on campus, it's a different feeling. You go in the locker room, it's a different feeling. There's a lot of unity. We're all on the same page. We want to win."

For the first time in three years, the Cougars will be without the services of Matt Payne, who earned second-team all-America honors as a punter last season. BYU is hoping McLaughlin can step into that role right away, despite not having played since 2002.

"He's had two years in the Pac-10, so we feel comfortable with him. He has good game experience," said kickers coach Paul Tidwell. "I'm really impressed with him. He's an athlete. He reminds me of Matt Payne in that way. He wants to be involved in other things, like pursuit drills. He's already bought into coach (Bronco) Mendenhall's mind-set. He's a BYU guy. He always wanted to be here."

Tidwell had just been hired as BYU's recruiting coordinator in the winter of 2001 when McLaughlin was a high school senior. The Cougars didn't pursue him then because they already had Aaron Edmonds and Payne (who was a freshman at the time) in the program. The previous coaching staff also had promised a scholarship to Trent Williams.

"It's worked out really nice," Tidwell said. "Matt ran his course in those four years and now (McLaughlin) is here."

Though McLaughlin served in South America, where soccer is king, he didn't even kick a soccer ball during his two years in Argentina. "It was against the rules to kick anything in our mission," he said. "I went on a two-year drought, and I'm getting back into it now. It's coming back pretty quick. I'm at about 75 percent of where I want to be right now."

He returned from his mission in March and began working out at his old high school to try to get back in shape. He arrived in Provo a month ago.

"The hardest part is remembering how good you were, and you're not that good yet," McLaughlin said. "It's your mind against your body. Your mind says you can do this and your body says, 'Not yet.' Patience is the hardest thing. Not being able to do it at the level you want to is frustrating. It takes time to get back into it."

The way McLaughlin sees it, it's time to build upon what he did at Washington. Following a detour in Seattle, he's thrilled to be punting for BYU.

"It wasn't right then. It's right now," McLaughlin said. "I've got to capitalize on it."

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com