KENOSHA, Wis. -- Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is the last coach who needs to be told the importance of a reliable kicker.
Northwestern’s kickers have provided an abundance of happiness and suffering for Fitzgerald throughout his five years as head coach. Fifteen Wildcats games over that time have been decided by four points or less, and Northwestern went 10-5 in those games. It’s occurred 10 times over the last two seasons.
That’s why this preseason Fitzgerald is taking his time to decide between sophomore Jeff Budzien and junior Steve Flaherty as his starting placekicker to replace Stefan Demos, who graduated after starting two seasons.
Fitzgerald hopes to finalize the spot sometime in the next week, but his evaluation isn’t complete just yet.
“Who can we trust to do what we want them to do when we want them to do it and who has earned the trust of their teammates?” Fitzgerald said after a recent practice. “Both Steve and Jeff have done that. It’s a neck-and-neck race.
“Both guys have really struck the ball well. Are they 100 percent? No, nor do I expect them to be. They’re pretty darn close. I’m very pleased with where they are now. Even beyond that, mentally, they’re in a good place mentally.”
The kicking competition has been going on since last season. With Demos on his way out, Fitzgerald began measuring the two kickers during last season’s TicketCity Bowl practices. Fitzgerald continued his evaluation during the team’s spring practices and now is finishing it up with fall camp.
The two kickers do only have four opportunities each practice to prove themselves in live action, but, over time, Fitzgerald has been able to see them plenty.
“It’s even a harder balance not to over-kick them,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s all of a sudden like a pitcher where they get a dead arm. You don’t want them to have a dead leg going into the opener.
“I would say it’s less the micro and more the body of work going back to the TicketCity Bowl [that will decide the winner].”
Both kickers have proven they can be consistent. Both have missed only a few kicks in practice and have been accurate from a variety of distances. Both were perfect in Saturday’s scrimmage.
After the team’s final practice in Kenosha, Wis. last week, both felt they had showed enough to win the job.
“I feel good,” Budzien said. “I’m striking the ball really well. I trained this summer like I was the starting guy. I’ve talked to myself like I was the starting guy. That’s in coach Fitz’s hands, but I think I’ve done anything I can to do that.”
Flaherty was just as confident.
“I started camp 21-for-21 and was 21-of-22 the first week,” Flaherty said. “Wednesday was my first bad practice, and I missed two. I’ve only missed four or five throughout the camp.”
Fitzgerald doesn’t mind seeing his kickers miss a few attempts. He actually prefers them to, so he can see how they react to it. Fitzgerald knows the mental part of kicking can be just as important as the physical.
“I want to see if that kind of competition is going to make them crack a little bit,” Fitzgerald said. “Is it all of a sudden one bad kick or three bad? Are they able to flush the experience of some negativity and adversity? And vice versa, you’re rolling and all of a sudden you might mishit it, it might be a bad operation, bad snap. How does that impact you? Those things are going to happen in a game, too.”
A kicker’s psyche can be tested as much when they’re away from the field as on it. With only four kicks a day, there’s plenty of time to analyze how their day went.
“If you miss one that day, it kind of does stay with you the rest of the day because there’s not another opportunity to make up for it,” Flaherty said. “When you have a good day, it’s a good day the rest of the day.”
Most players would hate to have that much time on their hands to think, but Budzien actually enjoys it.
“I think that’s where the mental toughness shows,” Budzien said. “You kick maybe 20 practice kicks and then you have four live. If you get lucky or unlucky for four, it’s about whether you’re mentally tough or not. It’s kind of cool.”
Like any positional battle, Budzien and Flaherty are out to win the job. They focus on themselves when they take the field and want to beat the other. Off it, they rejoin the team’s other specialists and carry on with their friendship.
“That 15-20 minutes of the day we’re on the field kicking, it’s a little less friendly,” Flaherty said. “But the rest of the day, we’re hanging out with the specials.”
“It’s tough,” Budzien said. “It’s pretty cutthroat on the field. We spend too much time together to not be friends. I root for him every time, and I know he roots for me. As specialists, we’re joking around and talking about other stuff. Luckily, we don’t always have to talk about it and can get away from it a little bit.
“When it’s on, it’s on. That’s what I love about being a kicker. That’s what gets my motor running, that kind of competition. Who’s up one or whatever? That’s why I kick.”