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In Oklahoma State's case, those couple of inches may have cost the program a spot in the BCS championship game. For Boise State, those inches meant the difference between a $26.4 million BCS berth and settling for the $1.1 million MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. With so much riding on a few kicks, college coaches need to do whatever they can to find the best possible guy for the job.
FOR DECADES, MANY PROGRAMS TRIED TO GET BY WITHOUT allocating scholarships for special teams players. To tab a kicker, teams would hold tryouts before the season or grab someone off the soccer team. "When I played in the Big 12, [recruiting a kicker] was important to certain coaches, but some refused to give a scholarship," says Kohl, recalling the late 1990s. Now, he estimates that 50 to 60 kickers, punters and even long-snappers earn FBS scholarships in a given year. "If you can find one that's special, it's well worth the scholarship," says Georgia coach Mark Richt, who expects his scholarship kicker, freshman Marshall Morgan, to start this year.
The national kicking competitions held by Sailer and Kohl make it easier for coaches to know what they're getting. "It becomes obvious very quickly who has the strongest leg, and who's the most fundamentally sound," says Sailer, who ranks the national top 12 from among his students every year.
USC coach Lane Kiffin surprised many when his first full recruiting class in 2011 included a kicker (Andre Heidari) and a punter (Kris Albarado). The reasoning: Facing impending NCAA scholarship limits, Kiffin wanted to lock in a pair of players who could hold down their positions for four years, and he wanted the best. Heidari was Kohl's top-rated kicker in the nation that year, Albarado his No. 2 punter.
At Georgia, Richt has enjoyed tremendous success with his kickers, using just three designated starters over his entire 11-year tenure. Former Bulldog Blair Walsh (2008--11), a fifth-round draft pick by the Vikings this spring, finished his career with an SEC-record 412 points, three points ahead of Richt's first kicker, Billy Bennett ('00--03); the two sandwiched Brandon Coutu ('04--07). Knowing Walsh's career was coming to a close, Richt made it a recruiting emphasis last year to "go find the best kicker in America," personally watching tape of every top kicker in the South. He made his first and only offer to Morgan, out of South Florida's American Heritage High and ranked seventh nationally by Rivals.com.
Still, with many top programs only allocating scholarships to kickers once every three or four years, many talented players walk on—and, more than at any other position, often beat out the scholarship guys. Nebraska's Maher and Oklahoma's Hunnicutt were walk-ons, and the two most recent winners of the Groza award (presented to the nation's top kicker), Oklahoma State's Dan Bailey (2010) and Texas A&M's Randy Bullock ('11), began their careers as walk-ons. Watching a string of walk-ons come in and win starting jobs led Missouri's Gary Pinkel to stop offering scholarships to high school kickers. "When a walk-on [kicker] beats out a scholarship player, it's usually an older guy who's been there longer," says Sailer. "That happens all the time because they're mentally more ready."
FOR KICKERS, THE MENTAL ASPECT OF THE POSITION IS "easily more than half of it," says Nebraska's Maher. "If you're not mentally strong and sharp, I don't think it matters how far you can kick it."
Therein lies a challenge: How do you predict which of the top high school kickers in a given year will best handle the pressure of performing on the road in front of 90,000 screaming fans? Or whether a kid will be able to brush off a kick missed in the first quarter or let it affect him the rest of the game (or season)? "It's the only position where grandmas in the stands can tell you how they did," says Kohl. "You either made it or missed it, and everybody knows. Who can handle the pressure the best? We travel all over the country to try to determine that."