Wednesday, August 29, 2007

#4 - Time to Get Their Kicks

There's a strong case that this baby could be the #1 key to the Irish season, but it certainly merits being one of the top few...

#4 - Time to Get Their Kicks

Quickly, think of how many teams have multiple kickers on scholarship yet have no clue who the starter is, let alone if any of them can get the job done consistently.

Being a place-kicker is like being a plumber; the job's not glamorous, you get described in only the broadest stereotypes, and as long as you do you're job correctly you get neither praise nor damnation . Occasionally, if you really come through in the clutch by patching a messy leak or plunging a dangerous clog late in the day, you get rewarded. But if you f&*k up...well, then s&*t literally rains down.

Since Nicholas Setta suffered an injury during the 2003 season, the Irish have been relying on walk-ons to brace the gap in the kicking game. Local South Bend hero DJ Fitzpatrick had a moment of glory with a game-winner that season...against NAVY, but he was mainly invisible through 2+ seasons as the number-1 kicker. His most notorious miss? A 35-yarder in the 4th quarter against USC in 2005, one that would've put the Irish up 27-21. Who knows what might have happened? Fitzpatrick was serviceable, but still connected on only 34 of 49 FG attempts. His successor Carl Gioia, a walk-on from Valparaiso, didn't fare any better, going just 8-for-13 on FGs and also inexcusably missing 6 PAT attempts. From the moment Setta went down in 2003 through the Sugar Bowl in January, ND made just 12 of 24 attempts from 40 yards of more. And in 2006, perhaps the most fatalistic statement about the range and accuracy of the Irish kickers was made through the stat that Charlie Weis opted to go for it on fourth down a staggering 33 times, third most in the country.

Now, occasionally that was a decision based a strategy and momentum and was in no way of reflection on the kicking game; case-in-point agianst Michigan State, when the Irish were trailing 24-7 and desperate to swing some big mo in their favor, so they went for it from their own 37 on 4th-and-1. But there were also times like the opening drive against USC, when the Irish faced 4th-and-9 from the 29 and didn't even bother asking Gioia to come out and make a kick he clearly couldn't make. Although he was sometimes looking for his offense to shoulder more of the burden and make statements that would resonate louder than chip-shot field goals, Weis' gambling ways on fourth down were often indicative of the fact that he would rather take chances against defenses then give away scoring opportunities due to missed field goals (and piling onto his kicking squad's self-doubt with each miss). By the end of last season's opener vs. Georgia Tech, when Gioia missed from 42 and 36, Weis knew what to do for the rest of the season if caught between the 20 and 35 yard-line - send Quinn back out there and go for broke.

The Irish come into the season with a legitimate battle for kicking duties, between scholarship players Brandon Walker (true freshman) and Ryan Burkhart (sophomore), plus walk-on Nate Whitaker (sophomore). During their one open practice on Aug. 11, none of the three did much to assuage concerns among Irish fans, as they went a combined 6-for-14 and failed to reach the endzone during kickoff practice - another point of concern. The Irish had just 13 touchbacks last season, 8 from Burkhart and 5 from walk-on senior Bobby Renkes, and their opponents average start position was the 26-yard line. With rule changes pushing the kickoff spot back to the 30-yard line, the Irish need to get better - not just hold form and certainly not regress, but significantly better.

That's where Walker comes in. The depth chart released on Monday narrowed the choices at kicker to him and Whitaker, though it's not explicitly clear yet who's handling kickoffs and who's got FGs. Both need to be at their best, because as was mentioned yesterday with respect to a potentially-electrifying return game, nothing could help a refigured defense and inexperienced offense settle in quicker than the safety net of solid special teams play. It would be nice for the new QB not to take the offense to the 25 and then get sent back out to pick up a 4th-and-8 that could rattle his composure when two scholarships ought to be produce at least ONE player who can nail kicks from 40 yards (think the 2002 Setta, who was 8-for-8 from that benchmark distance.)

After wandering around in the walk-on wilderness for the better part of four seasons, the Irish are hoping two scholarships can net at least ONE reliable field goal kicker. The top contender? Brandon Walker, pictured above.

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