With instruction from a former pro under his belt, Toshiki Sato is now confident that his kicks are as good as those of current NFL players.

Next comes a chance to showcase his ability in game situations in front of coaches and scouts.

Sato, Japan’s top kicker, certainly intends to do so as a member of the Aviators in The Spring League, a six-team development league for pro circuits such as the NFL and CFL. The 2020 season, which has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic since March, will kick off Tuesday.

The 27-year-old will test his skills in the league for the second straight year when his Aviators face the Jousters.

Another Japanese player, wide receiver and Sato’s IBM BigBlue teammate Yoshihito Omi, will be playing for the Alphas.

“Objectively speaking, my kicks have become on par with NFL players, so it’s now to show them, draw attention from the scouts and get invited by a team,” Sato told the Japan Times earlier this month in an online interview from San Diego, where he has been based since September. “There will be other specialists participating, but I think it’s important for me to focus on giving performances that they think are at the NFL level. So to put how I feel into words, I can’t wait.”

Sato has practiced in Southern California under former NFL kicker Nick Novak, on a training field at a high school where Novak works as a coach.

Sato recorded an average of 74 yards with a hang time of 4.15 seconds during a recent workout, which would make him an NFL-caliber player at the position.

The Waseda University product, who has tied Japan’s longest field goal record at 58 yards, notched those numbers in nongame situations. Beyond skills, he’ll need a tougher mentality to repeat those performances in front of tens of thousands of people at an NFL game.

The 27-year-old believes his experiences playing on Japan’s biggest stages, such as the Koshien Bowl collegiate championship and the Japan X Bowl — the X League’s title game — will help him.

Novak, who played for several NFL teams including the San Diego Chargers, Chicago Bears and Houston Texans, is confident that Sato has the qualities needed to become the NFL’s first Japanese player.

“I really like how he deals with the pressure that I put on him,” Novak said. “I think he’s got the perfect personality to be an NFL kicker. You really need to be tough-minded to play at this level.

Toshiki Sato trains in San Diego. | KATSUYA YAMAMOTO
Toshiki Sato trains in San Diego. | KATSUYA YAMAMOTO

“And when I look at his kicking, his form is far above other guys coming out of college, his smoothness to it, you don’t see it often. And then, not just smooth but a lot of strength and power behind it. We can always grow and get better and work on things daily, but there are small things for him.

“(Now it’s about) doing well in games and getting the opportunity to go and compete in for NFL teams – that’s the stage we are at right now.”

Novak said that it was not necessarily the original plan for Sato to compete in The Spring League, which will be hosted in a bubble environment over four weeks at Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. But he added that the player decided to take part in it because the league will be aired on national television and it would be a good opportunity for him to get into the game environment.

“If teams don’t know about him, they’ll definitely know about him now,” Novak said.

Sato hopes to stay in the United States to pursue his NFL aspirations even after The Spring League concludes — in part because of the logistical challenges that could emerge if he were to receive an NFL offer while in Japan, according to Novak.

“A team probably wouldn’t bring a guy in all the way from Japan when there are so many options on the street … versus bringing a guy from Japan and then doing the extra quarantine on top of the quarantine that’s going on in the NFL,” Novak said. “It might be a turnoff for the NFL team.”

Sato is currently looking for sponsors whose financial support would allow him to stay in the U.S. for a few more months.

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