Quinn Sharp celebrated with teammates on the field of University of Phoenix Stadium and in the locker room afterward. He accepted congratulations from appreciative Oklahoma State fans at the airport as he flew home the next day. Yet despite living every college kicker's dream -- he hit a 22-yard field goal in overtime to give the third-ranked Cowboys a 41-38 Fiesta Bowl win over No. 4 Stanford -- the Big 12's special teams player of the year couldn't help thinking of a forlorn redshirt freshman who'd been on the other side of the field. Sharp never would have gotten his chance at the game-winning kick had Stanford's Jordan Williamson, a second-team All-Pac-12 honoree, made either a 35-yard attempt at the end of regulation or a 43-yarder in the first period of overtime. Visibly devastated on the sideline afterward, Williamson then sat in the corner of the Cardinal locker room, crying, as teammates came by to offer encouragement. "I know how it feels to be in his shoes," said Sharp. "It's not a fun day."
Indeed, some seven weeks earlier, Sharp -- 17-of-19 on 2011 field goal attempts to that point -- missed a 37-yard attempt from the left hash with 1:17 left against Iowa State, sending the ball above and, by the officials' judgment, a few inches outside the right goalpost. The kick would have given the 10-0 Cowboys a 27-24 lead; instead, the underdog Cyclones prevailed 37-31 in double overtime, ultimately costing Oklahoma State a shot at the national championship. Similarly, six days earlier, Boise State's Dan Goodale had missed a 39-yard try with one second left against TCU, the second straight year the Broncos' hopes for an unblemished season were dashed by an errant kick. And, a day after Sharp's miss against Iowa State opened the door for then-fourth-ranked Oregon to vie for the national title, kicker Alejandro Maldonado missed a 37-yarder that would have sent the Ducks into overtime against USC.
"You can't help but see that if some kicks had gone differently, it could have changed the outcome of who played for the national championship and who won the Heisman," said Sharp. "You can't help but say, 'What if?'"
While breakneck offenses and ultraprecise quarterbacks increasingly rule the roost in college football, in 2011 many of the most crucial games were decided by kickers. Most notably, Alabama and LSU met twice and did not produce a touchdown until the last five minutes of the BCS national championship game. The Tigers held off the Tide 9-6 on Nov. 5 in part because Alabama kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster combined to miss four attempts, including one in overtime. Afforded a second chance on Jan. 9 -- thanks in part to those Oklahoma State, Oregon and Boise misses -- Shelley made five field goals (but missed his sole extra point try) in the Tide's 21-0 championship blowout.
"College football is so competitive now, the kicks mean a lot more," said Jamie Kohl, a former Iowa State kicker (1995 through '98) who now runs national camps for aspiring college and professional kickers. "The games are tight because of scholarship limits and other factors, and a lot of times it comes down to precious kicks."
All those high-profile field goal flubs last season caused consternation among college football followers. Why are college kickers so bad? How hard can it really be for a coach to find one reliable kicker? Yet in reality, college kickers have rarely been better. And some of those with the most egregious misses were among the most reliable in the sport.
In 1975 the NCAA began tracking the success rate of so-called "soccer-style kickers" (who take a running start from the left or right of the ball and boot the ball with the instep, as opposed to the formerly commonplace "straight-on" kickers, who approach from directly behind and strike with their toe). In '78, the first year Division I split into two divisions, the sidewinders across what was then Division I-A (now FBS) made 58.8 percent of all field goal tries. The number soon began rising. Since the start of the 2000s, the success rate jumped from 67.4 percent to a record 73.8 percent in '10. (Last year saw a dip to 70.4 percent.) In '78 kickers made 29.2 percent of attempts from 50 to 59 yards. In '10 they connected on 50 percent. These improvements have come despite two rule changes that should have made placekickers' jobs harder: banning the use of tees beginning in '89, and two years later narrowing the width of goalposts by five feet, to the NFL's standard 18 feet, six inches.
The old stereotype of the scrawny kid with a good leg has been replaced by a new generation of finely tuned athletes who happen to kick. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Florida State's All-ACC kicker Dustin Hopkins is taller than the Seminoles' leading receiver (Rashad Greene) and running back (Devonta Freeman). At Kearney (Neb.) High before coming to Nebraska, All-Big Ten kicker and punter Brett Maher was a basketball shooting guard, a long jumper, a pole vaulter, a wide receiver and a cornerback in addition to being a kicker. Oklahoma's Michael Hunnicutt, who made 21-of-24 kicks as a redshirt freshman in 2011, was a starting receiver at Pearce High in Richardson, Texas.
Meanwhile, most aspiring college kickers now receive year-round advanced training thanks to national and regional camps and competitions conducted by gurus such as Kohl and former UCLA kicker Chris Sailer. Sharp, from Mansfield, Texas, first attended Sailer's annual national combine in Las Vegas during his freshman year of high school, while also participating at Sailer's regional camps in Dallas. Nebraska's Maher attended camps at Iowa, Iowa State, LSU, Nebraska and Ohio. Instructors, who often include current or former NFL kickers such as the Saints' Thomas Morstead, help campers hone their technique the way a golf coach helps improve a swing. "People are like, Aw, you just get up there and kick it, but it's not like that," says Sharp. "It's a lot more technical than people think it is. If you're off by a couple inches, it's not going to go through."
In Oklahoma State's case, those couple of inches may have cost the program a spot in the BCS championship game. For Boise State, those inches meant the difference between a $26.4 million BCS berth and settling for the $1.1 million MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. With so much riding on a few kicks, college coaches need to do whatever they can to find the best possible guy for the job.
For decades, many programs tried to get by without allocating scholarships for special teams players. To tab a kicker, teams would hold tryouts before the season or grab someone off the soccer team. "When I played in the Big 12, [recruiting a kicker] was important to certain coaches, but some refused to give a scholarship," said Kohl, recalling the late 1990s. Now, he estimates that 50 to 60 kickers, punters and even long-snappers earn FBS scholarships in a given year. "If you can find one that's special, it's well worth the scholarship," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who expects his scholarship kicker, freshman Marshall Morgan, to start this year.
The national kicking competitions held by Sailer and Kohl make it easier for coaches to know what they're getting. "It becomes obvious very quickly who has the strongest leg, and who's the most fundamentally sound," said Sailer, who ranks the national top 12 from among his students every year.
USC coach Lane Kiffin surprised many when his first full recruiting class in 2011 included a kicker (Andre Heidari) and a punter (Kris Albarado). The reasoning: Facing impending NCAA scholarship limits, Kiffin wanted to lock in a pair of players who could hold down their positions for four years, and he wanted the best. Heidari was Kohl's top-rated kicker in the nation that year, Albarado his No. 2 punter.
At Georgia, Richt has enjoyed tremendous success with his kickers, using just three designated starters over his entire 11-year tenure. Former Bulldog Blair Walsh (2008-11), a fifth-round draft pick by the Vikings this spring, finished his career with an SEC-record 412 points, three points ahead of Richt's first kicker, Billy Bennett ('00-03); the two sandwiched Brandon Coutu ('04-07). Knowing Walsh's career was coming to a close, Richt made it a recruiting emphasis last year to "go find the best kicker in America," personally watching tape of every top kicker in the South. He made his first and only offer to Morgan, out of South Florida's American Heritage High and ranked seventh nationally by Rivals.com.
Still, with many top programs only allocating scholarships to kickers once every three or four years, many talented players walk on -- and, more than at any other position, often beat out the scholarship guys. Nebraska's Maher and Oklahoma's Hunnicutt were walk-ons, and the two most recent winners of the Groza award (presented to the nation's top kicker), Oklahoma State's Dan Bailey (2010) and Texas A&M's Randy Bullock ('11), began their careers as walk-ons. Watching a string of walk-ons come in and win starting jobs led Missouri's Gary Pinkel to stop offering scholarships to high school kickers. "When a walk-on [kicker] beats out a scholarship player, it's usually an older guy who's been there longer," says Sailer. "That happens all the time because they're mentally more ready."
For kickers, the mental aspect of the position is "easily more than half of it," said Nebraska's Maher. "If you're not mentally strong and sharp, I don't think it matters how far you can kick it."
Therein lies a challenge: How do you predict which of the top high school kickers in a given year will best handle the pressure of performing on the road in front of 90,000 screaming fans? Or whether a kid will be able to brush off a kick missed in the first quarter or let it affect him the rest of the game (or season)? "It's the only position where grandmas in the stands can tell you how they did," said Kohl. "You either made it or missed it, and everybody knows. Who can handle the pressure the best? We travel all over the country to try to determine that."
While there's no way to replicate the rigors of a college game, Kohl tries to put stress on his pupils by constantly pitting campers against one another in competitions. "[USC's] Heidari was one of the most confident, self-assured guys I've been around," said Kohl. "He got better under those conditions. He hit higher, straighter balls than he usually hit. That's what I like to see." Those whose kicks suddenly go wobbly may not be cut out for the next level.
Richt said he isn't worried about Morgan succumbing to the stress of SEC competition. "What I've noticed over the years is, the more fundamentally sound [a kicker] is, the better chance he has to perform under pressure," said the coach.
High recruiting rankings rarely guarantee future success at any position, but kickers may be among the safest bets. Of Sailer's top 12 high school seniors and juco transfers in the class of 2008, 10 went on to become their school's primary kicker or punter for more than one season, including standouts Sharp, Walsh and Purdue kicker Carson Wiggs. By contrast, just two of Rivals.com's top 12 running backs in the same class (Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams and Texas A&M's Cyrus Gray) went on to have sustained success in college.
Yet kickers are seemingly undervalued by the recruiting sites. While more than 250 players nationally garner the coveted four- or five-star status bestowed by sites such as Rivals, even the top-rated kicker in a given year is relegated to three stars. "You just can't weigh them the same because: a) they're not hitting anybody b) they're not getting hit or c) [they're not] on the field for any consistent length of time," said Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell of kickers. Of course, when they do see the field, their impact is indisputable. "I believe with kickers [a team] needs a great one to be successful," said Sailer. "I see their value being just as important as a lineman or safety."
After the way last season played out, it's hard to argue with Sailer's claim. Missed kicks helped define the BCS race as well as much of the postseason, but in most cases, they were neither a reflection of coaches' inattention nor kickers' seasonlong performances. Alabama's Shelley and Foster bore the brunt of criticism following the Tide's Nov. 5 loss to LSU, but the Tide's offensive miscues in overtime -- including a sack and an illegal substitution -- forced Foster to kick from 52 yards. Boise's Goodale, a redshirt freshman, had little experience going into his ill-fated Nov. 12 game against TCU; with the Broncos blowing out most of their previous opponents, he had only attempted four kicks beforehand, none longer than 32 yards. Oregon's Maldonado, expected to redshirt, was instead filling in for injured starter Rob Beard. Another substitute, Virginia Tech third-stringer Justin Myer, made four attempts in regulation against Michigan in the Jan. 3 Sugar Bowl but missed his lone attempt in overtime, setting up Brendan Gibbons's game-winning 37-yarder for the Wolverines. The Big Easy was a rare bastion for kicking glory: In the New Orleans Bowl, weeks before the BCS title game, Louisiana-Lafayette's Brett Baer hit a last-second 50-yard field goal against San Diego State to deliver the school's first bowl win as a member of the FBS.
Conversely, there's the case of Stanford's Williamson, who was well on his way to a sterling freshman season, having made 11 of his first 12 attempts before a torn groin muscle caused him to miss three late-season games. "He was just not the same kicker toward the end of the year," said Kohl.
Knowing that, many questioned Stanford coach David Shaw for running the ball up the middle and playing for the field goal at the end of regulation. After missing that 35-yard attempt and having previously sent a kickoff out-of-bounds, Williamson looked rattled by the time he came out for his 43-yard overtime try. Shaw defends his decision with a pledge to stick by the rising sophomore. "Jordan Williamson is an exceptional kicker who is athletic, who has a strong leg, who had been consistent up until the point he got hurt," said Shaw. "He and I have had one conversation about the Fiesta Bowl, and that was the day after. I told him [that] anybody that is any good at anything has hit a low point. ... He can use it as motivation or however he wants to use it."
Richt also took heat for a kicking decision, in Georgia's Jan. 1 Outback Bowl meeting with Michigan State. After the Bulldogs picked off a pass in overtime, Richt had quarterback Aaron Murray take a knee on second down, setting up Walsh for a potential game-winning 42-yard field goal. He missed.
"I, maybe to a fault, believed he was gonna knock it through," Richt said this spring. He had ample reason. In the second overtime Walsh broke the SEC career scoring record with a 47-yarder. Yet the Bulldogs ultimately lost, and Walsh's career ended on a blocked 47-yard attempt in the third overtime. "When he misses at the end of the game, then [people say] he's no longer a 'reliable' kicker," said Sailer. "The reality is he just had a bad game."
Last season, a whole bunch of reliable kickers had the misfortune of suffering bad games at inopportune times. But nearly all of them return this fall. Sharp's goal for his final season in Stillwater is to win the Groza as well as the top honor for a punter, the Ray Guy Award, a feat never achieved. And he, like every kicker, would also like to be remembered more for his many makes than for a particularly notable narrow miss.