COLUMBIA — He delivered the final blow to defeat Kansas. He was the team's leading scorer in 2009. Of the three Missouri football players that made the All-Big 12 Conference first team last season, he is the only one to return for 2010. He is a preseason All-American. Yet, as the Tigers practiced Tuesday on Faurot Field, Grant Ressel was not scoring touchdowns, he was retrieving balls in the south end zone.
That's how practices go for Ressel and the other Missouri kickers. They warm up before the rest of the team reaches the field, they get their work out of the way early, and more or less hang around for the rest of practice — just in case coaches want to practice PATs.
Ressel, a junior, and his fellow kickers, senior Matt Grabner, sophomore Trey Barrow and freshman Christian Brinser, spend 30 minutes on the field in special teams drills on the busiest days. With morning practices clocking in at two hours, the kickers practice, away from coaches and teammates, on the sidelines.
Most days you can find Ressel and company kicking field goals when the team leaves part of the field open, much like a basketball player at the rec center will shoot on a hoop when a game goes to the other side of the court. Last Wednesday, the group spent half an hour seeing who could punt a ball farther up the Rock-M hill. More often than not, Ressel will take a bag full of balls and punt them from one sideline to the other then jog at a walking speed to the other sideline, and punt the balls back.
"We have a lot of time when we are by ourselves to really work on what we want to work on and get better," Barrow said.
"It seems pretty easy for most people when they look around," Grabner said. "We don't have to do too much, but we're accountable for what we have to do."
Arguably no player on the team has more pressure on them to perform than the kicker. A successful field goal can make a season — like Ressel's 27-yarder to beat Kansas in 2009. Yet the players at the position are separated from the rest of the team, called in like a mercenaries only when vitally needed.
Ressel, who talks as often as he misses field goals (he made 65-of-66 kicks in 2009), puts it simply:
"I'm a kicker. It's not really a high-profile position," he says.
The position is so low-profile on the Missouri team that after Barrow hit a 57-yard field goal to end a team scrimmage on Saturday, Gary Pinkel complimented Ressel's kicking ability to the media. He had no idea Barrow was the kicker until he was corrected.
It's hard to blame Pinkel for not knowing his kickers, Missouri does not have a coach solely dedicated to kickers or punters. Barrow called placekickers coach and offensive coordinator Dave Yost an "overseer." In a way, Barrow said, the kickers coach themselves.
Grabner said he enjoys the freedom of being self-motivated and coached. He would prefer to not be subjected to the same treatment as his teammates.
"There's enough pressure on us," Missouri's starting punter said with a chuckle. "It's good the way it is.
The Missouri kickers don't go to every team meeting. It doesn't matter if they can recognize if an opponent's defense is in man or zone coverage, but they do watch tape. When their teammates scout other teams, the kickers scout themselves.
Much like a golfer, the kickers watch tape of their motion to help diagnose mechanical problems that would otherwise go unnoticed. Once the problems have been recognized, repetition on the field, or sideline, is the only way to truly fix the problem.
"It's not always how hard you are swinging at it, it's more about making solid contact on a consistent basis and having the right tempo on it," Yost said.
Legendary golfer Bobby Jones once said, "Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears." For a kicker, it is no different. To be a successful kicker is as much mental as it is physical.
"You have to have a different mindset than other positions," Barrow said. "You have to be almost secluded."
Perhaps that is the reason Ressel doesn't talk much.
Nonetheless, that different mindset and the separation from the team has created a tight group of friends on and off the field, Grabner said. They don't talk about the competition between them often, as they prefer to spend the time coaching each other.
But there is only so much practice a kicker can do. For several drills, the kickers are used by the team as crash-test dummies. Early in preseason practice, the kickers made up the offensive line in seven-on-seven drills, holding their arms above their heads to make it more difficult for the quarterbacks to throw. Now they stand in for running backs and run through a gauntlet of linebackers and safeties trying to pop the ball out of their hands.
From the outside, it looks borderline abusive having linebackers swatting at the arms of 6-foot tall, 190-pound kickers wearing teal Nike soccer shoes, but Grabner said it is a right of passage for the kickers — one that he is glad, as a senior, he is exempt from.
Barrow likes the drill, it takes him back to the days when he was an all-state wide receiver in Moberly.
"It's actually kind of fun, we get to go back to being running backs," he said.
Plus, a few nice runs in practice might get Barrow finally noticed by Pinkel. Until then, it's back to the hill, picking up stray balls with the All-American.