College kickers end up coaching themselves

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 | 10:15 p.m. CDT

STILLWATER, Okla. — Dan Bailey knows just where to turn if his kicking goes awry, and it's not necessarily to his coaches at Oklahoma State.

It's punter Quinn Sharp.

"We've all been doing it long enough to where it's not like you're forgetting how to kick," said Bailey, the nation's third-leading scorer for the 17th-ranked Cowboys. "You just might have a little fundamental something wrong here or there. Usually, we just kind of help each other out."

This is pretty much the norm across the country. When the game comes down to a decisive field goal in the final seconds, chances are the guy kicking it has received less coaching instruction than anyone else on the team, spent most of practice isolated on another field and may not even have a scholarship.

"You don't really know about them until you don't have one of them, and then they get talked about a lot," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "We take those guys for granted."

Many coaches admit they don't have any expertise in kicking and say they can't devote an assistant coach solely to teaching it. The NCAA limits schools to one head coach, nine assistant coaches and two graduate assistants, and most programs choose to focus their staffs on positions from quarterback to defensive tackle to fullback.

That means the kickers end up coaching themselves to a large degree.

The Missouri football team's list of coaches does not include a kicker-specific coach.

"A lot of them have got to be masters of their own trade, and that's a discipline part of being a kicker at this level," said Eric Russell, the Tennessee special teams coach who splits time between the kicking game and supervising tight ends.

"You've got to be able to correct yourself," he said. "You don't get a lot of one-on-one attention, and you've got to be able to adjust on a dime."

Florida felt the pain of being without its injured scholarship kicker, Caleb Sturgis, on Saturday. Punter Chas Henry missed a 42-yard field goal in the final seconds that would have forced overtime in a 10-7 loss to Mississippi State.

Michigan has a scholarship kicker, Brendan Gibbons, but he has been replaced by walk-on Seth Broekhuizen. Each one has missed three of his four field goal tries this season and has limited guidance from the coaching staff.

It's the same story at Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and from Syracuse to Arizona State.

"You're not going to find many, if any, Division I school with nine assistants and one of them that just coaches the kickers," Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez said. "At this level, you can kick or you can't kick."

At Ohio State, a graduate assistant with some kicking and punting experience helps out. At Oklahoma, the de facto kicking coach is Bob Stoops, the head coach.

"I talk to them the most and am around them the most, but in the end I'm no kicking coach," said Stoops, who was a defensive back in his playing days.

Many kickers try to make up for this lack of attention by attending summer camps. Bailey, Oklahoma's Jimmy Stevens and San San Te at Rutgers are among those who rely on camps run by former UCLA kicker Chris Sailer. Bailey has also worked with former NFL kicker Chris Boniol.

"There's not a whole lot of people that really know a whole lot about it. Our coaches know some about it, but they don't know a whole lot about it," Stevens said. "They try to help when they can, but at the same time they can't really help that much."

Or, in Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville's words: "It's hard to coach a kicker and punter unless you are one."

Maybe they don't need the help because college kickers are getting more accurate.

According to data from STATS LLC, college kickers are hitting about 72 percent of their field goal tries now, compared with 64 percent in 1996, and there's been a steady increase over the past decade and a half. There's only a downward trend on kicks of 50 yards or more in the past five years after the success rate reached as high as 43 percent.

Without Bailey, Oklahoma State might not be still undefeated. The senior has made all 13 of his field goal attempts this season, including a pair of 52-yarders and the game-winning 40-yarder as time expired against Texas A&M. But his arrival came without the intense recruiting process of a blue chip prospect and without even a scholarship offer.

He earned his full ride only after more than a season of proving himself on the field — and after plenty of time off by himself.

"We like our alone time," Notre Dame senior David Ruffer said. "Part of being a kicker is if you're doing your job, nobody knows who you are."

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