According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, UCLA's game against Texas could come down to a field goal, and if it does, Kip Smith will be ready.
That might not have been the case a week ago. Smith, UCLA's redshirt freshman, had struggled all training camp and then missed a field-goal and extra-point attempt in a 38-34 loss at Houston, but he regained his confidence last week when he made two well-struck field goals in a 27-17 victory over San Jose State.
The smile on his face stretched from ear to ear after his first career field goal, a 38-yarder that gave UCLA a 17-10 lead in the third quarter, and after a 20-yarder in the fourth quarter broke a 17-17 tie, the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders.
"It’s a great feeling to kind of get the monkey off my back and get it out of the way," he said. "I finally felt comfortable out there. At Houston, I had first-game jitters. I was thinking gotta make every one. I can’t miss. Now it’s just go out there and have fun and do your thing."
Smith was nearly inconsolable after the Houston game as the mounting pressure of inconsistent kicks finally caught up with him, but seemed like a new person Saturday night after the San Jose State game. He credits some heart-to-heart talks with former players such as Kai Forbath, the kicker he replaced, Justin Medlock, who preceded Forbath and Christian Yount, UCLA's former long snapper.
Forbath missed his first two career field-goal attempts, but later in his career won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker. Medlock also missed his first career attempt but went on to set a school record with six 50-yards field goals.
"I learned that you just can’t think about negative things," he said. "Whether it’s kicking or throwing a pass, you just have to believe in yourself. It’s not cocky, it’s confidence."
Coach Rick Neuheisel said he never lost faith in Smith, who was a highly-sought kicking recruit out of high school two years ago. Smith was rated the No. 2 kicker in the nation by ESPN.com and routinely kicked field goals of 50-plus, but had begun doubting himself after a rough spring spilled over into the fall.
"You have to believe in people," Neuheisel said. "You have to give him confidence and you have to let them know that know that you are absolutely behind them. Know that inside them lies the talent that caused you to recruit them and let’s get that out and enjoy it and celebrate it and that’s what Kip did."
Smith has been struggling with his technique ever since the spring, when inconsistencies led the coaching staff to tinker with his form. They tried to gain accuracy by getting Smith to chip at the ball instead of power through it, but Smith struggled and has fixed things by going to a hybrid of sorts.
"I was kicking kind of like an eight iron or a nine iron," Smith said. "Now its more like a five or six."
But the biggest change came in his mental approach. Doubts and thoughts of missing "aren’t in my head anymore" he said. And he plans on approaching each kick with the calm mindset that it's a kick he has made a million times.
"I feel most comfortable and confident that I have since high school," Smith said.
That's music to quarterback Richard Brehaut's ears. The Bruins are a three-point underdog to Texas on Saturday and figure to have many close games in what appears to be a Pac-12 South division filled with parity. That means Smith will play a big role for UCLA this season just as he did last Saturday, when his 20-yard field goal gave the Bruins the lead for good.
"That was huge for Kip," Brehaut said. "For him to step up like that when it’s tied and we need points, that was huge. I think that was huge for his confidence and this is going to be a huge day for him in terms of moving forward and becoming the kicker we all know he can be."