Whenever an NFL kicker attempts a field goal from inside 50 yards these days, success seems inevitable.
That isn’t the case in college.
Just two weeks ago. Duke beat Pittsburgh 51-48 in overtime after Chris Blewitt missed a 26-yard field goal that would have won the game for the Panthers.
Utah’s Andy Phillips, considered one of college football’s top kickers, missed a 37-yard attempt in overtime as the Utes fell 19-16 to Arizona State that same day.
While NFL field-goal accuracy has gone from 81.3 percent in 2009 to 85.4 percent this season, according to STATS LLC, college kickers haven’t improved at a similar rate over the past five years.
According to STATS, Football Bowl Subdivision kickers are making 72.8 percent of their field-goal attempts this year, virtually unchanged from 72.9 percent in 2009.
The difference is most stark from 40-49 yards, where NFL kickers are making 82.3 percent of their attempts this season while their FBS counterparts are at 59.9 percent.
“To me, that’s one of the biggest differences in college and the NFL — the kicking,” said Oregon State special teams coordinator Bruce Read, a former NFL assistant. “In the NFL, if it’s a game-winner, it’s through, it’s done and you walk off and you won the game. The kicker did it. But in college, you see these overtime games where both kickers miss. Or at the end of the game, you have a gimme right there and he pushes it or pulls it.”
Field-goal accuracy in the FBS soared from 64.1 percent in 1996 to 72.9 percent in 2009, but it’s leveled off since.
Chris Sailer, who works with many of the nation’s top high school kickers at various camps he runs across the country, says the rise in percentage coincided with an era when schools started getting more proactive in handing scholarships to kickers rather than asking them to walk on.
“I think you saw a big increase (in accuracy) in those years because that was really the time when every college coach in America jumped on that bandwagon to start offering scholarships,” said Sailer, a former Lou Groza Award finalist at UCLA.
But most schools still only sign a kicker every few years. That type of recruiting strategy restricts competition.
When an NFL kicker misses a big kick on Sunday, his roster spot may be on the line. If a college kicker falls into a slump, a coach’s only option sometimes is to hand the job to a walk-on.
“I think kicking would go up in college if you could have open tryouts every Tuesday and cut guys if they don’t get it done,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said with a laugh. “That’s a pretty good motivator on Sunday. If you want to feed your family, make kicks. If you don’t, you’re going to be on the street.”
Sailer believes colleges should start awarding scholarships to kickers more frequently.
“Basically they’re only going to offer when their kicker’s a junior or senior,” Sailer said. “Until that changes, I don’t think you’ll see that (percentage) dramatically increase.”
There are other potential explanations as well that go beyond the wider hash marks in the college game, which create tricky angles for short-range kicks.
Botched snaps and mishandled holds are much more common in college than in the NFL.
Although a growing number of schools are offering scholarships to snappers, many still rely on walk-ons to handle that assignment.
“When you get into college, the snapper might not be quite as accurate,” Read said. “He may be an offensive lineman that you’ve taught to snap to save a (scholarship). When the snaps are off, now the holder’s got to reach up or reach out, and then when he puts the ball down, it’s not in the same spot oftentimes.”
Only a handful of FBS special teams coaches were kickers or punters during their playing careers. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said with NCAA staffing limits, “I don’t know if it’s feasible” to hire a guy specifically to work with kickers.
“Most of these kickers have their own coaches, guys that they go to in the offseason and such,” Pelini said. “I’m not going to sit there and weigh in on something. There are certain basic techniques I can see that are obvious. I might make a comment here and there. It’s like messing with a golfer’s swing.”
Most college kickers also don’t get much experience attempting game-winning field goals in high school, forcing coaches to get creative in practice. They’ll have a team gather around a kicker and scream before each attempt. They can make sure the accuracy of a kick determines whether a team runs laps.
“It gets you kind of used to it,” Arizona State kicker Zane Gonzalez said. “I feel like it’s more nerve-wracking out here than in the game. In the game, basically you act like it’s any other kick.”
But those scenarios can’t replicate attempting a field goal in front of 80,000 fans with a game on the line.
“It’s like making a 3-foot putt for the U.S. Open,” said Gary Zauner, a former NFL and college special teams coach who now runs a kicking camp and combine. “You don’t have that pressure until you’re there trying to putt that ball.”
That makes the position particularly difficult to evaluate during the recruiting process. Even the schools with a history of success understand the challenges involved in finding the right kicker.
“You do all your due diligence,” said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, whose school produced two of the past six Lou Groza Award winners. “You have your checklist of things. And then at the end, you still keep your fingers crossed.”
AP Sports Writers John Marshall in Tempe, Arizona, and Eric Olson in Lincoln, Nebraska, contributed to this report.
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