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August 20, 2008
Kickers feel plenty of pressure late in games
Kicking a football is easy. Kicking a football with the outcome of a game hanging in the balance isn't.
There are dozens of high-pressure situations in sports, but none more stressful than attempting a potential game-winning field goal.
Well, a putt that could clinch a golf tournament is no doubt pressure-filled. But only that individual golfer fails if the shot is missed.
A pivotal free-throw attempt can be incredibly nerve-wracking. Ask Memphis' Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose. But at least the guy shooting free throws presumably has been running and sweating along with the rest of his teammates throughout the game.
Batting in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and your team trailing definitely would be a high-pressure situation. Again, though, unless the batter is a designated hitter or pinch-hitter, he has been as involved in the game. And even if he's a great hitter, there's still about a 70 percent chance he'll fail.
A kicker, though, stands safely on the sideline while his teammates – in most cases much larger than he – scratch and claw to move the ball into field-goal range. Then, they stand by while the kicker trots on to the field to determine if the team succeeds or fails.
Adding to the drama, the opposing coach is calling timeouts just before the kick in an attempt to rattle him. Once a free-throw shooter is given the basketball, opponents can't take a timeout or move.
A golfer who missed a putt doesn't have to face disappointed (or angry) teammates who did their jobs.
And though getting a hit three times in 10 tries translates to greatness in baseball, it equates to miserable failure for a kicker.
Therefore, a kicker who can convert the pressure field goal is as valuable a commodity as anyone short of an All-America quarterback or running back.
IN THE CLUTCH
Here's a list of six college kickers who seem to thrive under pressure.
• Thomas Weber, Arizona State: As a freshman last season, he converted 24 of 25 field-goal attempts, including 7-for-7 from at least 40 yards. He hit a game-winning 37-yarder against Washington State.
• Austin Starr, Indiana: He has hit 86.8 percent of his field-goal attempts in his career. Last season, he converted a 49-yarder with 30 seconds remaining to lift the Hoosiers over archrival Purdue, 27-24. That victory clinched Indiana's first bowl appearance in 14 years.
• Ryan Bailey, Texas: His first college field-goal attempt was a 22-yarder with 23 seconds remaining that lifted the Longhorns over Nebraska, 22-20. He has hit 24 of 28 attempts in his career, including 9-for-11 from at least 40 yards. Last season, he converted a 40-yarder on the final play to beat Oklahoma State 38-35.
• Wes Byrum, Auburn: As a freshman last season, Byrum hit 17 of 23 attempts and converted game-winners from 43 yards out with no time remaining against Florida and from 21 yards out with 21 seconds left against Arkansas.
• Sam Swank, Wake Forest: A missed potential game-winner from 47 yards against Virginia last season hurts, but Swank has come through more often than not. He hit a clinching 43-yarder with 1:40 remaining in last season's 24-21 win over Florida State. In 2006, he was voted the Deacons' MVP. He has converted 80 percent of his attempts in his career, including three in a 9-3 ACC Championship Game victory over Georgia Tech in '06.
"Leading up to that kick, I knew I had to take a lot of responsibility," said Weber, who won the Groza Award as the nation's premier kicker last season. "My teammates played their hearts out all game, and it came down to me. To give it up like that would be heart-breaking."
Yeah, but some kickers just don't have the heart for that situation. Last season, for instance, Tennessee won three times when the opposing kicker failed to convert.
Some guys handle the pressure. Some don't.
"You've just got to be able to shake (the pressure) off and go back to whatever you practice and know you can do it and know you can do well," Weber said. "It's the same mentality in all sports. … You have to calm your nerves and get your mind in gear."
But that's obviously easier said than done.
When everything is at stake, Weber's mind goes to steak.
"One thing my coaches told me is to think about something I like to do other than kicking. Or maybe think about my favorite food (a nice, big steak) to get your mind off the kick and get your mind at ease," he said.
He also tries to keep in mind a series of steps for success. Just as free-throw shooters follow certain steps – balance, aim, bend knee, follow through – kickers do, too.
"You have to keep your eyes behind the ball so you see the whole ball and not just have your head down," Weber said. "You have to swing (the leg) up because you want to get the ball up and high, and you've got to swing straight."
Of course, kickers can practice facing pressure, too. Sometimes, Arizona State practices end with Weber attempting a field goal to determine whether the rest of the team runs a series of 50-yard sprints.
Make the field goal and practice is over. Miss and everyone runs.
"I think that puts more pressure than a game," Weber joked. "Your teammates have been busting their butts all day, and you can give relief for them not having to do any more running."
No doubt, Weber's teammates are thankful when he rescues them from running.
But they're surely happier when he converts a clutch field goal.
"I think it's exciting to be the one guy out there and have your teammates trust you and the coaches behind you," he said. "It's a great feeling."
Who holds the NCAA record for longest field goal without the use of a kicking tee? (Answer at the end of the column.)
Name the college for which these former Olympians played football.
1. Jim Thorpe (decathlete, 1912)
2. Bob Hayes (sprinter, 1964)
3. Ollie Matson (sprinter, 1952)
4. Herschel Walker (bobsledder, 1992)
5. Jeremy Bloom (skier, 2006)
6. Michael Carter (shot putter, 1984)
7. Sam Francis (shot putter, 1936)
8. Bob Mathias (decathlete, 1948, 1952)
• Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen announced that senior Jordan Steffy will be the starting quarterback in the Terps' opener against Delaware. Steffy started last season until suffering a concussion against Rutgers midway through the year. Chris Turner finished last season as the starter.
• Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson has lauded freshmen Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw and said they are ready to play. He also hinted that veteran backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown needed to make quick recoveries from strained hip flexors or risk falling on the depth chart.
• Penn State has lost defensive tackle Devon Still for eight to 10 weeks because of a broken left ankle that will require surgery. The Nittany Lions were already thin at defensive tackle after two others were dismissed from the team in recent weeks.
• Junior Kevin Craft will start at quarterback for UCLA in the Bruins' opener against Tennessee on Sept. 1. He beat out redshirt freshman Chris Forcier. UCLA's top two quarterbacks – Patrick Cowan and Ben Olson – were both lost to injury.
• USC quarterback Mark Sanchez said he's optimistic he'll be able to start the Trojans' opener against Virginia. Sanchez, who dislocated his left kneecap in a practice earlier this month, returned to practice Monday and made several sharp throws.
• Ole Miss defensive tackle Peria Jerry had arthroscopic surgery for a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee and is out indefinitely. That's the second significant loss for the Rebels' defensive line. All-SEC end Greg Hardy is out about eight weeks with an injured foot.
• Two Columbia, S.C., police officers have been suspended without pay after being accused of excessive force in the arrest of South Carolina offensive lineman Kevin Young in March. Lawyers for the police officers denied the charges.
• Tennessee got a big break Tuesday when the NCAA cleared tight end Brandon Warren to play. Warren, who started his career at Florida State, has looked exceptional in practices for the Volunteers. Warren had asked out of his scholarship at Florida State because of a family hardship. FSU had declined to release him, though.
• Wide receiver Tray Herndon participated in Vanderbilt practice last week. A transfer from Minnesota, Herndon started seven games last season and caught 22 passes for 235 yards. He will have to sit out this season, and will still have three years eligibility remaining.
• Louisville wide receiver Scott Long broke a bone in his foot and is out indefinitely. Long, who averaged 13.3 yards on 27 receptions last season and was the Cardinals' leading returning receiver, will have surgery.
OLD SCHOOL ANSWERS
2. Florida A&M
3. San Francisco
Kansas State's Martin Gramatica hit a 65-yard field goal, without a tee, against Northern Illinois on Sept. 12, 1998.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.