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May 9, 2012
Just about every college football program in the country would love to have Missouri's recent track record with placekickers.
What's the secret to the Tigers' success? They generally don't offer scholarships to kickers directly out of high school.
"For the most part, we've been more successful having guys come in and prove themselves over time and winning the job," said Missouri offensive coordinator David Yost, who also serves as the program's recruiting coordinator and kicking coach.
That plan has produced some remarkable success stories.
Jeff Wolfert enrolled at Missouri as a diver and had just one game of high school kicking experience when he decided to walk on to the Tigers' football program. He ended his college career in 2008 as Missouri's career scoring leader.
Wolfert was succeeded by Grant Ressel, a former all-Big 12 pick who went a combined 43-of-46 on field-goal attempts in 2009 and 2010 before slumping last year and missing much of the second half of the season with a hip injury.
Missouri's strategy is unusual, but it's hardly unprecedented.
At least 16 of the 121 FBS non-academies don't have a kicker who was offered a scholarship directly out of high school or junior college. That list includes such heavyweight programs as Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
Each of the last two Lou Groza Award winners - Texas A&M's Randy Bullock in 2011 and Oklahoma State's Dan Bailey in 2010 - began his college career without a football scholarship. Bullock was a three-star recruit who turned down scholarship offers from other programs to walk on at Texas A&M. Other former walk-ons who went on to win the Groza Award include Oregon State's Alexis Serna (2005) and Louisville's Art Carmody (2006).
Across the country, there are plenty of examples each year of scholarship kickers getting beaten out by walk-ons who go on to have big seasons.
After kicking for Notre Dame as a true freshman in 2009, Nick Tausch got beaten out by walk-on David Ruffer, who didn't miss a field-goal attempt throughout the 2010 regular season. Philadelphia Eagles kicker Alex Henery began his illustrious Nebraska career as a walk-on before beating out scholarship kicker Adi Kunalic.
[ Related: Polish kicker's long journey to Alabama ]
"As a walk-on, you don't get a whole lot of [attention] up front," Henery said. "You don't think you've arrived, so you just keep working each year. I don't know if it makes a difference as a walk-on, but it was just my mindset coming in. You're there and you'll do everything for the team that you can and help them out in any way possible."
Of course, that's true of walk-ons at every position. So why is kicker the one position where walk-ons seemingly have the best shot of beating out scholarship players?
For one thing, the transition from kicking off a tee in high school to kicking off the ground in college sometimes proves difficult.
"When you use a tee, it will hide a lot of your mistakes,'' said Chris Sailer, a former All-America kicker at UCLA who now runs the Chris Sailer Kicking camp. "You can use poor technique, and because you have that tee, it corrects your errors for you in a sense. But when you go to the ground and use that poor technique, that ball you were hitting 55 yards is now hitting your lineman in the butt.''
That said, Sailer believes that was more of an issue 10 years ago than it is now. He noted that most of today's college kicking prospects understand they need to make the adjustment and make sure they practice kicking off the ground, whether it's at home or at various camps across the country.
But the mental side of kicking at the college level continues to make it hard to predict which prospects will succeed. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer compares the up-and-down life of a kicker to that of a golfer. Sometimes they're on. Sometimes they're not.
"There's more to it than just physically being able to kick," Beamer said. "I think mentally being able to perform [is critical] because there's nothing tougher. There's nothing tougher than a field-goal guy going out there and doing a very exact thing and then running back off the field.''
That's the dilemma. How do you prepare for the challenge of kicking in front of 80,000 people with a game on the line?
Kicking prospects get at least a taste of that pressure when they compete against their peers at camps. And, of course, they may have faced pressure situations on their high school teams. But that doesn't necessarily mean they'll make a smooth transition to a bigger stage.
"It's hard to see sometimes how guys are going to develop," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "A lot of these kids in high school haven't been coached. They're just kind of going out there and kicking on their own. Once they start to get coached and start to get instruction, it allows them a chance to develop. Now they're going to develop just like at any position.''
Give a walk-on a year or two to develop, and he just might beat out a freshman on scholarship who is still adjusting to college life.
"When a walk-on beats out a scholarship player, it's usually an older guy who's been there longer, who's been able to practice two or three years and has been in the program already," Sailer said. "That happens all the time because they're mentally more ready and they've been there, so they have the experience. That does happen. Seeing a [walk-on] freshman beat out a [scholarship] freshman is pretty rare.''
Pelini said he typically likes to have at least two kickers on his roster - one scholarship player and one walk-on. He then just lets the competition play itself out during the preseason.
Missouri tries a similar approach, only it likes having three kickers in camp and doesn't include a scholarship player in the mix. The last Missouri placekicker to earn a scholarship directly out of high school was Plano (Texas) West's Matt Casaday, who signed with the Tigers in 2005 as a combination kicker/punter but never reached the top of the depth chart at either position.
Since then, the Tigers have offered only perceived can't-miss prospects such as former Houston (Texas) Clear Lake standout Dustin Hopkins, who signed with Florida State as the nation's top 2009 kicking recruit and now is ranked by nfldraftscout.com as the No. 1 kicking prospect in the 2013 draft class.
Missouri changed its recruiting strategy after its scholarship kickers frequently got beaten out by walk-ons early in Gary Pinkel's coaching tenure. If a walk-on wins the job and proves he can handle the demands that come with it, that's when the Tigers will award him a scholarship.
"We've scholarshipped these guys once they've proved themselves," Yost said. "We're a school where you can come in and do a good job and we'll take care of you. If you win the job, we're not going to sign somebody and see if that guy's better. If you win the job and show us and we feel you can be the guy for however long you have left - two years, three years or one year - if you earn the job and win it, we're not going to go out and try to scholarship somebody [else]. We're going to take care of the guy who earned it and took care of us.''
And the Tigers certainly won't play favorites.
That much became obvious in 2006 when Wolfert won Missouri's kicking job by beating out incumbent starter Adam Crossett, who happens to be Yost's brother-in-law.
"It didn't make Thanksgiving a lot of fun," Yost said, "but the bottom line is it was the best thing for the program. The best guy's going to play."
In Missouri's case, the best guy typically wasn't offered a scholarship straight out of high school.