Kicked to the side
Title chances are being missed, but kickers booted when it comes to recruiting
Nearly two decades have passed since former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, tormented by two straight losses to Miami that ended wide right, signed the first superstar kicking recruit. Scott Bentley picked FSU over Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and a lineup of other powerful names and programs.
When Bentley was a true freshman, his short kick with 21 seconds left beat Nebraska 18-16 in the 1994 Orange Bowl and gave Bowden his first national championship. Until 1999, with Bentley and Sebastian Janikowski in place, Bowden suffered no late-game heartbreak against the Hurricanes.
But three times in the decade that followed, Florida State lost again to Miami on missed field goals.
And today, with multimillion-dollar coaching salaries as incentive to win and many new-age resources to evaluate kickers, big-time college coaches continue to find difficulty recruiting players at the position who can win the games that matter.
"For us, it's often going to come down whether you want to take another offensive lineman in your recruiting class or a kicker," said Texas A&M recruiting coordinator Tim Cassidy. "And that's not usually going to work out well for the kicker."
But sometimes, it doesn't work out well for the program, either.
Each kick impacted the national title picture.
That's not to mention Boise State, which saw its unbeaten record and BCS bowl hopes derailed last season against Nevada on a 25-yard Kyle Brotzman miss and this season to TCU on Dan Goodale's errant attempt from 39 yards.
So what gives?
"It's a very interesting phenomenon," said Jamie Kohl, a former Iowa State kicker whose series of camps serve as a training ground for high school specialists. "College coaches often misrecruit kickers. I've tried, through the years, to find a formula for guys who are successful, and to be honest with you, there are different personalities that get it done.
"It comes down to the individual athlete and how he copes with situations."
According to experts like Kohl and former UCLA kicker Chris Sailer, the practice of recruiting kickers has improved dramatically in the past 20 years.
"Almost every coach now, whether they say it or not, is valuing kickers," said Sailer, who operates another national training program and directs the offseason specialty camps at LSU and Alabama, among other schools. "The number of scholarships are up to 40 or 50 a year. When I was getting recruited, I think it was four."
ESPN.com research found that only a handful of starting place-kickers in the FBS ranks maintain walk-on status. Many, though, arrived on campus without scholarships, like Texas A&M's Randy Bullock, who walked away with the Lou Groza Award on Thursday night as the nation's top player at the position.
Bullock led the nation with 25 field goals this year as a senior and connected on 86.2 percent of his attempts.
"He had trust in two different coaching staffs, and it paid off," Cassidy said. "Sometimes as a kicker, you've got to have trust."
It's not easy. Despite the work of Kohl and Sailer to identify and promote the top kickers, many fall through the cracks. Others don't fit as planned. It's like any position, really, with a higher margin of error, because the variables differ.
College coaches rely little on high school film or kicking statistics. Field conditions vary widely. Snappers and holders aren't usually well trained. So kickers must attend third-party events -- similar to the method many basketball players use to gain exposure through AAU -- or market their skills directly to the college programs.
Take Atlanta Marist School's Austin Hardin, the nation's No. 1-rated kicking prospect. He booted a 59-yard game winner last year against Southwest DeKalb that quickly entered into YouTube lore.
Should have been enough to impress recruiters, right?
"It was almost like college coaches didn't believe me," Hardin said, "like it was luck."
Hardin had to prove himself on campus. Schools staged pressure-filled moments at their camps, with a group of coaches on hand to watch one kick. Hardin envisioned the moment as if a scholarship sat in the balance -- and it probably did.
The scenario unfolded at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Auburn. Hardin received offers from all three before committing to Florida in June.
"They're all hesitant to offer a kicker," Hardin said, "because it can be so hit-or-miss."
Ryan Domangue from Houma (La.) Terrebonne is considering an offer from Louisiana-Lafayette, but other schools, including Tennessee, passed after watching him kick in person. As with the game itself, Domangue said, recruiting requires a short memory.
"You miss it or you make it," Domangue said. "You've got to move on."
Sailer said he encourages college coaches to sign a kicker before the senior year of that school's current starter. Some are starting to listen, although others remain hesitant and look for a freshman starter every four years or stick with a group of walk-ons.
Another deterrent: If he fails to win a job, a kicker likely can't assist like a backup at another position on scholarship by working with the scout team.
Unless, of course, you're Brett Maher. The Nebraska junior earned first-team All-Big Ten honors this fall at place-kicker and punter. He hit 19 of 22 field goals, including all 16 attempts inside 50 yards and averaged 45 yards per punt while kicking off, too.
Maher, a junior walk-on who turned down offers from Ohio and Colorado State, is accustomed to the heavy workload. He was a state champion in the pole vault and long jump at Kearney (Neb.) High School, started in basketball and played receiver and defensive back when he wasn't kicking.
Competition comes naturally, Maher said.
Before this year at Nebraska, he waited behind Alex Henery, who finished his career last year as the most accurate place-kicker in NCAA history. Henery also came to Nebraska as a walk-on.
So, you see, there's no proven formula for success -- except, perhaps, that great kickers possess an appetite for pressure.
Hardin, for example, in that moment before he kicked in front of the coaches on college campuses last summer, settled into a zone, he said. He forgot about everything at stake.
"There's a hundred guys out there who can hit a 55-yard field goal in practice," Maher said, "but the secret is to be able to transfer that over to a game in a big-time situation. That's why it's so difficult to predict, because you never know how a guy is going to react until he's put in a situation like that."
At Kohl's Professional Camps, the staff tries to simulate pressure situations. Sports psychologist Marty Martinez of USA Track and Field helps the kickers with focus.
"Still, it's a different deal when you've got your whole team and 80,000 people," Kohl said, "all watching and depending on you."
Premier recruit or walk-on, a hundredth of an inch at the point of impact makes all the difference, as Bowden and so many before and after him have learned too well.
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman