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).