It is not always ideal to have a freshman take sole responsibility of kicking duties, but it happens. Nine kickers in the top 50 based on a percentage of field goals made are freshmen. According to the NCAA list of the top 50, there is a good mix of all classes. The numbers are pretty even amongst sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The most telling number though is out of the top 15, there are only three freshmen. There are ten juniors and seniors in the top 15. Penn State has a freshman kicking duo and understands the struggles of a freshman kicker.
Struggles of a Freshman Kicker: Penn State Edition
Points off of a field goal have not always been constant for the Nittany Lions. I first remember field goal struggles my freshman year at Penn State. Three different kickers were used throughout the 2011 season. True freshman Sam Ficken was utilized in three games. Junior Evan Lewis took the duties in four games. Finally, Anthony Fera took the punting and kicking duties in 12 games. The coaching staff saw Sam Ficken as the kicker of the future for the Nittany Lions and he was, but it wasn’t always pretty. After Ficken, the Nittany Lions again used multiple kickers in 2015; Joey Julius and Tyler Davis. Now, true freshman Jake Pinegar is having his own form of kicking struggles but looks to be improving every game.
Freshman kickers around college football
Jake Pinegar is not the only freshman thrust into kicking duties for his team. Nebraska has turned to Barret Pickering. Miami utilizes Bubba Baxa. Anders Carlson got the nod for Auburn. Conferences and geographical area may separate the four, but two things are common; all are freshmen and not one has a field goal percentage of 70 or more.
Out of the nine freshmen on the top 50 list compiled by the NCAA, one is from the Big Ten. Maryland freshman kicker Joseph Petrino. Petrino is the outlier of the freshmen and at the top of the list. While he has made 100% of his field goal attempts this season, he hasn’t attempted a field goal over 40 yards.
The freshman kicker out of the four above, outside of Petrino, with the lowest completion percentage through 10 games is Anders Carlson for Auburn. Carlson has only made 54.5% of this field goals this season. However, this percentage is deceiving and slightly skewed because he is 1-for-8 from 50+ yards. The other three combined have only tried one from 50+. The longer attempts and the more misses in those attempts cause the percentage to be lower.
Low percentage factors
The struggles of a freshman kicker are often amplified by several factors. The first, lack of experience in a college environment. The stage is bigger and the stakes are often higher, making the lack of experience a big factor in the kicking game. Especially for the kickers on the above list. Two, Pinegar and Pickering, are in the Big Ten kicking for historic programs with large fan bases. Baxton and Carlson are in the ACC and SEC, respectively, kicking for teams with a rich winning history. In high school, even the biggest programs in the country don’t play in front of the number of fans as Penn State, Nebraska, Miami, and Auburn. This is likely daunting for an 18-year-old.
Furthermore, muscle imbalances cause a lack of leg strength on a younger kicker. This is due to less time with the strength and conditioning team at their university. Accuracy will improve with the increase of leg strength as time goes on.
Finally, the level of play quality increased at a rapid rate. The rushers that these kickers face are at a higher play quality than what they saw in high school. Adjustments must be made to keep accuracy while elevating the football. Elevation coupled with accuracy is the main struggle for Pinegar this season.
Nittany Lion struggles this year
As stated above Pinegar’s main struggles are with accuracy and length. This is likely attributed to muscle imbalances and the need to elevate his kicks. If you watch Penn State football games, Pinegar’s kicks are mainly driven without much elevation. On Saturday against Wisconsin, he had one low kick blocked but when he tried to elevate the next one, it came up short.
The refreshing news for Penn State fans is that Pinegar is actually fairing better than many think just by watching him this season. He is kicking at 66.7%, good enough for sixth in the Big Ten. He is 3 for 3 within 29 yards, 4-5 from 30 to 39 yards, and 50% from 40 to 49 yards. Therefore, his percentage is brought down by the 40 to 49 yard percentage. Even with Pinegar’s long being 49 yards, his style of punt often gives him the length but is prone to blocks.
The Nittany Lions have been in this spot before, specifically with Sam Ficken. A straight parallel between this season and Ficken’s sophomore season is that the student section cheers extra loud every time a field goal, or even extra point goes through the uprights. Penn State students and fans understand that points off of a kick are not given. These points are extra special when they occur. Ficken was a sophomore during his main kicking struggles, but before he left Penn State he was number one in the Big Ten in field goals made in 2014. This shows that one season, one game, or one kick does not make or break a young kicker.
Looking ahead for the young kicker
Jake Pinegar has three more games, including the bowl game, this season to improve his field goal percentage. The young kicker will travel to Rutgers this weekend. The weather in Piscataway, NJ on Saturday will be much more manageable for the freshman. Sunny and 49 degrees with barely any wind is a major improvement from the blustery day in State College against Wisconsin. The crowd will be smaller. Likely pro-Penn State, as Penn Staters travel well and a lot of alumni live within driving distance. Look for a performance like the one against Iowa where he went 3-for-3 and accounted for 12 points in the win against the Hawkeyes.
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