Just for Kicks
As colleges give more scholarships to placekickers, more players are specializing in that position
AS A FRESHMAN in the winter of 2005, Blair Walsh was a starting forward on the Cardinal Gibbons (Fort Lauderdale) soccer team, but his leg strength prompted a teammate to suggest that he try kicking field goals. The next year he was the Chiefs' placekicker and converted 9 of 13 three-point tries. At the Las Vegas National Kicking Combine the following spring, he was the top-performing sophomore. And soon after Walsh had made 13 of 20 field goals as a junior, including a longest of 57 yards, scholarship offers were coming from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Miami, South Florida and West Virginia.
Walsh orally committed to Georgia last February and this season counts two 59-yard field goals among the seven he has booted in 10 attempts for Cardinal Gibbons (2--3). Also, 91% of his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.
The recruiting landscape for kickers wasn't always so fertile. Chris Sailer, a former All-America kicker at UCLA who founded the Vegas combine, believes he was one of only a dozen high school kickers and punters who received a scholarship in 1995, the year he graduated from Notre Dame (Sherman Oaks, Calif.). By contrast, on national signing day last February, 55 kickers and punters landed Division I-A scholarships. Here are two reasons why that number will continue to increase:
• In 2006 Division I-A kickers were true on a record 70.5% of their field goal attempts.
• An NCAA rule change implemented this fall pushed kickoffs from the 35-yard line back to the 30. As a result, touchbacks were down from 29.9% over the previous two years to 12.0% through the first five weeks of this fall.
"We will always keep a punter and kicker on scholarship," says Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who has an oral commitment from Quinn Sharp of Summit (Arlington, Texas), rivals.com's No. 1 senior kicker in the nation.
Though nearly every high school staff has a special teams coach to coordinate coverage, few have coaches dedicated to developing kickers. Thus, many young kickers look to camps or private coaches for instruction. Also, high school kickers are sometimes hard for scouts to evaluate, because factors such as wind aren't apparent on video, and not all long snappers and holders are created equal. Showcases, such as Sailer's and the Ray Guy Kicking Academy (which is in 32 cities), are needed, Sailer says, "for the proper exposure to get these kids scholarships. Coaches are able to see these guys kick side by side."
"Kicking is like a golf swing," adds Sailer, who charges $250 for a two-hour personal lesson. "It requires individual training." And that training serves the athlete in total (weights, running, plyometrics), the position specifically (leg strength, quickness, explosion) and muscle memory (the motions of kicking and punting).
Greater availability of scholarships for kickers is also giving Division I-A opportunities for some athletes who likely would have to play their full-time positions at smaller schools. Paul Asack of Xaverian (Westwood, Mass.), who has Division I-AA potential at linebacker, committed to Duke as a kicker. Jimmy Howell, a 6'6", 248-pound QB-P-K for West Florence (S.C.), committed to Virginia, which has offered him a scholarship as a punter and a chance to try out at kicker, quarterback and tight end. Even Sharp, who is 12 of 12 on extra points and 5 for 5 in field goals this season, had to realize his first love—baseball, in which he is an all-district centerfielder—wasn't going to get him the shot at a scholarship that kicking would.
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Friday Night Lights
SOLDOTNA vs. KODIAK, Oct. 13
The nation's first state championship will be played in Anchorage, where Soldotna, Alaska's top-ranked Class 3A school, meets No. 2 Kodiak to decide the small-schools title. The 9--0 Stars, who beat Kodiak 29--20 in last year's final and 70--14 earlier this season, routed Valdez 53--12 in the semifinals behind 133 rushing yards from RB Bryce Gardner (right). In the other semi Kodiak (7--2) beat Eielson 40--0, with 5'4" QB Jimmy Eggemeyer (left) passing for 262 yards; he threw for two touchdowns and ran for another.
A STAY-AT-HOME LINEUP
The news wasn't all bad for USC last week: Agoura (Calif.) junior tackle Kevin Graf committed to the Trojans. The 6'6", 302-pound Graf, a 2007 Nike Underclassman All-America, will be the third member of his family to play for USC, following dad Alan and older brother Derek. Graf is the fourth in-state recruit from the class of 2009, joining Dominguez (Compton) linebacker Marquis Simmons, Carson tight end Morrell Presley and Cathedral (Los Angeles) wide receiver Randall Carroll.
NO WINNERS IN THIS FIGHT
After a bench-clearing brawl between Miramar (Fla.) and Flanagan (Pembroke Pines, Fla.) on Sept. 28, the Florida High School Athletic Association suspended 58 players—29 from each school—for one to six weeks. Among the banned players is Miramar senior quarterback Eugene Smith (left), who threw 15 touchdown passes in the opening four games of the season. Both schools lost their first games without the suspended players.
SI's Top 10 Power Rankings
1 NORTHWESTERN (Miami) 5--0
Next: Hialeah--Miami Lakes, 0--6 and scoreless in four games
2 ST. XAVIER (Cincinnati) 7--0
Faces staunch St. Edward (Lakewood) D in rare road game
3 SOUTH PANOLA (Batesville, Miss.) 6--0
Goes for important league win vs. Columbus (4--2)
4 CARROLL (Southlake, Texas) 4--1
Offense is averaging 43.4 points and 515.8 yards per game
5 KATY (Texas) 5--0
Led by QB Bo Levi Mitchell, Tigers are piling up 410.6 yards per game
6 NORTHSIDE (Warner Robins, Ga.) 6--0
Big test vs. 4--0 league foe Baldwin (Milledgeville, Ga.)
7 MATER DEI (Santa Ana, Calif.) 5--0
In 57--31 win over Centennial (Corona, Calif.), the teams set a state record for total yards in a game: 1,300
8 HAMILTON (Chandler, Ariz.) 7--0
Got past Gilbert (Ariz.) 28--21 on a TD with 1:51 left
9 MARYVILLE (Tenn.) 6--0
Tight end Aaron Douglas has 20 catches for 358 yards
10 COLERAIN (Cincinnati) 7--0
In last two games, outscored foes by a combined 98--0
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DARREN CARROLL (SHARP)
NO SMALL FEAT Sharp nailed a 27-yard field goal in a 17--14 win over Mansfield last week.
M. SCOTT MOON/PENINSULA CLARION (GARDNER)
DEREK CLARKSTON/KODIAK DAILY MIRROR (EGGEMEYER)
TOM ERVIN/THE MIAMI HERALD