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September 16, 2011MADISON - There's something to be appreciated about hand-me-downs and keepsakes. The things that have been used relentlessly throughout the years and the things that otherwise get trashed if not for some esoteric wanderer finding intrinsic value in it are wondrous.
Consider Alec Lerner, UW's sophomore kickoff specialist, one of those esoteric wanderers.
"The balls that we kick with are really beat up because they've been kicked for years," Lerner said following a recent practice. "They've got a lot of pop to them."
These balls, laced with the vaunted 'Motion W' most Badger fans salivate over, are incredibly worn. Their original color is a thing of the past. The grip? Well, any normal sized hand would have a better chance of palming a basketball fresh off a routine dousing in a vat of butter.
"If you don't hit the sweet spot on those balls they'll still carry really well," Lerner, not so defensively, said. "They're very round and beat up."
Yes, these are the things that a kicker has to matriculate.
It's not so much the technique, footing or planting that will determine a lead-footed athlete's fate or success. It's simply a matter of the ball being kicked. And it's the same ball that could eventually win or lose a game for a team if it skirts past the outside of a given set of uprights.
"Show me a kicker that's not mental," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "I understand it. I love to play golf. If I'm playing with a club or ball that I don't like I usually don't play very well."
To extrapolate that analogy further, consider a brand new, out-of-the box football, Lerner's arch nemesis. It doesn't feel right, it doesn't fly as well and it sure as heck isn't as good as those raggedy beaters he's prepped with throughout his first couple of seasons in Madison.
When former quarterback Scott Tolzien and then kickoff specialist Philip Welch formed the dynamic duo, they were in agreement. They each liked a good old-fashioned used football as their game ball of choice.
Lerner is obviously of the same mold, but his matching quarterback isn't quite ready to go down that route.
"Russell Wilson likes to use balls out of the box, new balls," UW co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge, who also works with Lerner, said. "So we've got to do everything we can to get him new balls during practice. As (Alec) works through that he'll be where he wants to be.
"He's hitting pretty good balls, but I know he'd like to get back to his true form."
Pick a time during fall camp. Any time. Chances are you'd see Lerner blast kickoffs five yards deep into the opposite end zone. Chances are you'd see whomever wound up fielding that kick quickly take a knee not because it was his best option, but because it was his only option.
Try as his teammates may - - even Bielema put pressure on Lerner by saying he'd end practice early, but only if he blasted a bomb deep into the end zone - - Lerner stepped up to every challenge. He essentially thwarted every taunt, every jab and every harassment his teammates threw his way like a goal post can reject a misplaced attempt. He just had that level of comfort that kept him confident and true in his technique.
Now, at least two games in, that's not there.
It's not because there are suddenly 80,000 people watching him. Lerner relishes that challenge.
"I get more pumped up when people are watching," he said. "I get a lot more into the ball."
It's not because he doesn't have the leg power.
"Before the game I'll hit my balls and I'll hit them through the end zone," Lerner explained.
The only rational explanation anybody can seem to muster in relation to the change between kickoffs in practice and those seen on game day always circles back to the difference between a really old and brand new football.
"You don't want to use it as a crutch," Partridge said. "But I do think there is an adjustment whether it's from an old ball to a new ball or the other way around. You do deal with those things and you do go through the officials to get balls approved and all the balls need to be the same.
"He's just got to get as close to what he's going to use on game day and every day in practice."
Lerner hasn't kicked badly. He hasn't.
But at the same time, he hasn't necessarily kicked great. He has a couple of solid strikes and he normally has a good hang time. But sometimes, even if he strives to reach the goal of a four-second hang time, the distance escapes him.
He'll place the ball where he wants - - normally between the hash and either sideline - - but instead of getting it past the goal line it will hover around the 10-yard line. It's a funny occurrence for an otherwise serious ordeal.
"I wouldn't say I was too comfortable," Lerner said. "But I kind of forgot about the little fundamental things that make my kickoffs good. I started getting crouched over when I was hitting the ball so I kind of wrapped my foot around it. That's why I was hitting them so close to the sideline and without a lot of hang.
"I was pretty disappointed with that, but I'm glad I figured it out with what was going on. I'm looking forward to correcting that."
Sometimes, especially when the distance isn't necessarily there, hang time is of the utmost importance. The smallest guy on the team happens to have the biggest leg. He's just trying to figure it all out.
One kick at a time.
"I guess hang time is very important," Lerner said. "But if I can put the ball to the goal line or a little deeper with a little less hang I think they (the coaches) like that the most. They've been really happy with placement. Even with my bad kicks I've put them between the numbers and the hash or the numbers and the sideline.
"That makes our return a lot easier."
Lerner understands why the ball is so important to the quarterback. He understands why that player gets the final say. The quarterback, in fact, is the only player on the football field that literally touches the ball every single play they're in. There had better be a solid confidence between the quarterback and the ball because it's something that cannot be thought about during the course of a given game.
So for a lonely kicker, who plenty of times wind up being the hero or the goat with one good or bad kick, it's a lonely world. But that doesn't mean the pupil will suddenly want to stop learning how to overcome.
"It just takes a little adjustment," Lerner said. "I can't get caught up in the football and kicking. I just have to hit it clean. If you hit a clean ball with these new game balls they'll still fly pretty well.
"I just have to adjust."