Can Eddy Pineiro save Florida's kicking game?
GAINESVILLE, Fla.—The crowd at the Swamp cheered louder for the first extra point than it did for the first touchdown last Friday. The drive down the field had provided some comfort after a 2015 season that ended with the Gators trotting out a nonfunctional offense. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio, the transfer from Oregon State and Alabama, had smoothly guided the first-team attack. But he was playing against the second-team defense. He was supposed to do that. The kick was something else entirely.
The cheer was partially of the Bronx variety. Florida finished No. 123 in the nation in extra point accuracy (87.8%) in 2015. The Gators missed five of football's most basic kicks, an incredible volume considering 53 teams didn't miss any PATs last year. Florida's kicking was so erratic last fall that the Gators only attempted 14 field goals. They made seven, tied for No. 120 in the FBS. So, watching a ball go through the uprights inspired some relieved sarcasm.
But that wasn't the only reason the fans cheered. They heard the sound when Eddy Pineiro's foot connected with the ball. Even though the average football fan—and the average sportswriter—knows little about proper kicking mechanics, everyone can recognize the unmistakable shotgun-blast boom when a special kicker makes contact. Roberto Aguayo's kicks made that sound in the last actual game played at Florida Field. Unfortunately for the kick-starved home fans, Aguayo played for Florida State. "I didn't expect it to be that loud on an extra point," Pineiro said, "but positive energy is what I like."
Rarely does a fan base—and a coaching staff—get so excited and nervous about a kicker at the same time, but Pineiro's situation is unique. With barely any football experience, he could be historically great—or he could fold the first time he faces a live rush this September. He was the subject of a high-profile recruiting battle based on two camp performances and a video clip. He has the leg. He has the attitude. He does not, however, have much experience.
When Pineiro's first field goal attempt, a 52-yarder, sailed through the uprights with about 10 yards to spare at the Gators' spring game Friday, the 40,000 or so people at Florida Field sounded like the usual 90,000 the program draws in the fall. Second-year coach Jim McElwain was one of those people yelling. As Florida's spring practice progressed, McElwain allowed himself to become more intrigued by the possibilities Pineiro's leg might provide. "It started with getting really excited when he put his helmet on correctly. That was pretty cool," McElwain cracked. "Then he got it buckled. That was even better."
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Pineiro played soccer growing up in Miami. He made a seven-game cameo on Sunset High's football team as a senior, but he only attempted a few kickoffs and extra points. He was supposed to go to Florida Atlantic on a soccer scholarship in 2014, but he failed to qualify academically. Instead, he wound up at ASA College, a two-year, community school with a campus in Miami Beach. Somewhere on his way back to the soccer field, Pineiro discovered he had a talent for kicking footballs.
Former Michigan kicker Brandon Kornblue has built a business training kickers in Florida. He lives in the southwest corner of the state, but he travels across it offering lessons to players who hope to land college scholarships. Since few schools have a coach on staff with any practical experience, Kornblue runs the kicking portion of summer camps at programs across the country. He has trained current Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, who starred at Georgia. He has trained Quinn Nordin, the top-ranked kicker recruit in the 2016 class who recently signed with Michigan. Kornblue was training a kicker in Miami last February when that kicker asked if he could bring a friend for lessons. That friend was Pineiro.
Pineiro couldn't afford lessons, but Kornblue took him on anyway. Pineiro showed a natural leg strength that could neither be taught nor developed. Kornblue knew that with proper cultivation, Pineiro could at least go to college for free and could probably earn huge money in the NFL. "I could see it right away. He was strong. He had a really big leg," Kornblue said. "But he was all over the place. He had no technique."
After only two months of training, Pineiro entered a competition against the other kickers being trained by Kornblue. Video of the event didn't hit the web until a month later, but Kornblue had alerted college coaches to be on the lookout for something special. During that competition, Pineiro hit an 86-yard kickoff that hung in the air for 3.97 seconds. He made 50-yard field goals from each hash mark. He doinked a 71-yarder off the crossbar and through the uprights. Kornblue could talk up Pineiro to coaches until he was out of breath, but he knew things would change after they saw the video. "I was telling coaches about it, but they hear it from so many people so many times," he said. "Until they see it from a credible source, they don't believe it."
The video began to convince them. Last summer, performances on consecutive days at camps at Alabama and Florida erased any concerns coaches might have had about Pineiro's lack of experience. Florida offered first. Then Miami offered. Then Alabama. Pineiro committed to the Crimson Tide in June. By then, he was becoming a YouTube star of sorts. A clip of him making a 73-yarder that month made the rounds.
In December, Pineiro posted a clip of him making a 77-yarder. The NFL's official account tweeted that one out. A guy who had only kicked a few times for a 1–9 high school team had suddenly emerged as one of the most famous kickers in the country.
Pineiro got even more attention when he flipped from Alabama and signed with Florida in December.
Alabama coaches and fans weren't thrilled with that news, but McElwain certainly was.
Pineiro said at the time he didn't want to go to school so far away from his family. Kornblue believes that if Miami hadn't been going through so much upheaval Pineiro might have landed there. Distance was a factor, but so was the improvement of Alabama kicker Adam Griffith as last season progressed. Griffith, who would go on to be one of the heroes of the national title game thanks to his beautiful fourth-quarter onside kick, has one more season to play. "As it got closer, he realized how far it was going to be," Kornblue said. "It was a 13-hour drive instead of a four-hour drive. Then, also, there was the fact that Alabama's kicker had struggled but then stepped up."
The question after Pineiro arrived in Gainesville was how well the kicks Pineiro made on YouTube would translate in pads. After Pineiro capped spring practice by making kicks of 52, 46 and 56 yards—and missing from 53 and 52—the Gators seem confident he won't be only an Internet sensation. "It's good to see Eddy get out there and kick in front of people for the first time," said quarterback Austin Appleby, who transferred in January after graduating from Purdue. "We were wondering." Said McElwain: "Early in the game, it was windy as heck. The wind was swirling down there. It was good to see him navigate that, because most of his YouTube videos are in perfect weather."
McElwain almost didn't send out Pineiro to try the 56-yarder. "Are you sure you want to do that?" McElwain remembered asking Pineiro. "You might pull something." Pineiro didn't hesitate. "Coach, put me out there," he recalled responding. "Put me in. I'm ready." Pineiro faced his biggest distraction of the night as officials blew their whistles just as the ball was being snapped, but he booted a line drive through the uprights. The call was for delay of game, which would have wiped out the kick in anything but a spring game. "Executive decision says that penalty is declined," the referee said before raising his arms.
The next step comes in September when Pineiro faces a truly live rush. He has seen one in practice, but a game offers different psychological stakes. And what happens if he misses? Kickers are like golfers. They can get the yips. Pineiro pointed to his behavior after Friday's misses as evidence that he can shake off a bad play. "I didn't let it get to my head," Pineiro said. "What happens a lot is kickers miss and get down on themselves. It's just negative energy. I just keep it positive all the time. Either I make it or I miss it. I'm positive 100 percent."
If Pineiro can fulfill his potential, he may have to decide if he wants to be a one-and-done kicker. He has three seasons of eligibility remaining, but the value of kickers in the NFL has increased since the line of scrimmage on PATs was moved back to the 15-yard line before last season. Also, he may be almost as valuable from a hidden yardage standpoint. Pineiro has shown an aptitude for hanging kickoffs high and dropping them near the goal line. That can bury opponents deep in their territory and create chances to force turnovers. "Our hang times were unbelievable when we told him to drop it on the goal line," McElwain said. "Now your kickoff team has an opportunity to create field position."
Since Pineiro graduated high school in 2014, he would be eligible to declare for the '17 draft. "Of the 10 years I've been doing this," Kornblue said, "I can't think of a guy who's got more potential and more talent."
Before he can think about that, though, Pineiro must prove he can kick in pads, in front of a crowd and with a group of large men bearing down on him. Everything he has done so far suggests he can, and for a program that was afraid to even attempt field goals last season, that excitement prompted a half-empty stadium to roar after an extra point. "He's going to definitely be a weapon," Appleby said. "You pretty much have to cross the 30, and you've got points." Del Rio thinks that might be a conservative estimate. "You say, 'Where's the kick line?'" Del Rio said. "I don't know, cross midfield and we'll try from there."
Pinerio isn't concerned about the distance. He said he feels comfortable from 60 yards. He also doesn't seem to mind the pressure that comes with being asked to save Florida's kicking game. "I don't know too much about football," Pineiro said. "I just kick the ball and it goes in."
UAA Communications/Jay Metz
A random ranking
While discussing topics for last week's random ranking, a reader suggested hair band power ballads. I loved the idea, but I felt it necessary to consult college football media's foremost expert on this topic. Former coworker Stewart Mandel, who now works for Fox Sports, responded in about 45 seconds.
That's a decent list, but I think I can do better. For this, we aren't including all-time great bands or groups that found success outside the genre. We're looking at you, adult contemporary act Bon Jovi. And, of course, "Don't Cry" is a great song. It's a Guns N' Roses song. Ditto for Aerosmith's "Angel." But let's not lump bands like that in with the Spandex and Aquanet crowd, even if they momentarily participated.
1. "High Enough" — Damn Yankees
2. "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" — Poison
3. "Love Song" — Tesla
4. "Home Sweet Home" — Mötley Crüe
5. "Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)" — Cinderella
6. "Fly To The Angels" — Slaughter
7. "Heaven" — Warrant
8. "Wind Of Change" — Scorpions
9. "Close My Eyes Forever" — Lita Ford (with Ozzy Osbourne)
10. "Love Is On The Way" — Saigon Kick
1. The NCAA Division I management council voted Friday to ban satellite camps, and the vote makes very little sense. As explained here last week, the majority of schools in eight of the 10 FBS conferences would benefit from coaches being allowed to work camps with other colleges or with high schools. Power 5 programs that don't sit in recruit-rich areas could have sent coaches to those regions, which would have allowed them to see more players and kept them from having to pressure prospects to pay their way to on-campus camps at far-flung locations. Coaches from the Group of Five schools have assisted with camps at Power 5 schools for years. Every player goes to Ohio State (for example) thinking he's good enough to play for the Buckeyes, but some ultimately prove to be a better fit at Bowling Green. The arrangement allowed coaches from Group of Five schools to evaluate players who they otherwise may never have seen.
Now none of the coaches can do that, because the majority of them voted* to ban the practice. In reality, such a ban only truly benefits the ACC and SEC, which were smart enough to protect their recruit-rich turf and cunning enough to convince several other leagues to vote against their own best interests.
* The popular narrative Friday was that the ACC and SEC somehow hoodwinked "the NCAA" into passing this ban. The NCAA did nothing of the sort. The conferences that make up the FBS subdivision of the NCAA voted. You've seen a lot of NCAA-bashing from me, but this will not be one of those times. The people who run the governing body didn't do this. The conferences did it to themselves.
Despite the rhetoric from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, there was nothing unfair about satellite camps. If anything, they aided schools with geographic disadvantages. They gave recruits a low-cost option to gain exposure to coaches from different schools. They gave coaches from geographically disadvantaged schools the chance to meet more players. The only "bad" thing was the camps infringed on the ACC and SEC's turf.
There is nothing wrong with the ACC and SEC defending their competitive interests. This is America. Everyone is supposed to act in his own best interest. When a representative of a group doesn't vote for that group's best interests, we have to assume that person is either corrupt or stupid.
I'd lean toward stupid in this case. From discussing this vote with people around the country, it seems that not everyone realized the management council was voting on whether coaches could guest at other camps. If the vote were only about whether programs could stage their own camps—at their own expense—at an alternate location, then every Group of Five conference would be against it, because staging camps would be prohibitively expensive. But why would anyone from the Group of Five vote against coaches guesting at other schools? That's something those schools have been doing successfully for years. It makes no sense.
The other potential reason—the one that makes some sense—is the coaches went to their athletic directors and said they didn't want to work that hard. Coaches are on call 24/7 to recruit at all times that aren't dead periods. (And even in dead periods they have to answer every recruit's call.) If coaches at a northern school thought they were going to have to work camps in Florida, Georgia, Texas and California, they might not have wanted the extra time away from home.
It wouldn't be the first time coaches backed a rule that would ultimately lessen their workload. When Nick Saban first arrived at Alabama in 2007, he outworked his fellow head coaches during the spring evaluation period. So, they complained he was violating the "bump" rule and got head coaches banned from the road in the spring. The workload argument makes more sense than anyone outside the ACC or SEC claiming the ban benefitted them, but knowing the way many of these coaches are, it's tough to imagine them begging out of a competitive situation.
2. While we were busy discussing satellite camps, the management council passed two pieces of far more important legislation. One of those deregulated electronic communication with recruits in several sports, including football. That means coaches may now text, Snapchat and communicate with recruits in other ways that were previously prohibited. (Basketball coaches have been allowed to do this for a while, and the world miraculously kept spinning.) The last time the NCAA tried to loosen these rules, football coaches freaked out. Some worried Saban would outsource the texting of recruits to India—and they were only sort of joking. Common sense dictates that coaches won't text too much because no one likes the person who texts 50 times per day.
The other piece of legislation is more interesting. It requires schools to maintain written academic integrity policies. (All already do.) It then makes it possible for the NCAA's committee on infractions to determine whether schools commit a violation if they break their own written rules in a case involving an athlete.
This would make it much easier for the NCAA to punish a school such as North Carolina, which offered bogus classes for years that a disproportionate number of athletes used to skate through. Under the rules in effect for the UNC case, the NCAA must prove the bogus classes were created especially for athletes—thus providing them with an extra benefit. That's tough, considering non-athletes also took them. (The worst-kept secret on any campus is the list of easy classes.) Under the new rules, a program in a similar situation would be in trouble if athletes benefited from classes that violated the school's written policy.
This is an elegant solution that supports the NCAA's version of states' rights while still giving the governing body an avenue to punish widespread academic cheating. The cynics will say schools will simply soften the language in their written policies, but that would be a huge risk for the schools. Remember, the business of college sports is tiny compared to the business of college. Softening an academic integrity policy would raise red flags with an accrediting agency, and a school that loses accreditation may as well go out of business.
3. Another theory on the satellite camp ban: A bunch of people didn't want Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to get his way. This rationale would fall into cutting-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face territory, but Harbaugh is a lightning rod.
Of course, this vote won't stop Harbaugh. I subscribe to the theory espoused by Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com. Baumgardner believes that Harbaugh is the football equivalent of The Office's Michael Scott when Scott negotiates with Dunder Mifflin after his Michael Scott Paper Company goes broke.
The Jim Harbaugh Traveling Football Company has been banned, but Harbaugh has no shortage of company names.
4. Stanford coach David Shaw explained why he didn't care about the satellite camp ruling. But Shaw, who worked under Harbaugh before replacing him on the Farm in 2011, slipped in a shot at Harbaugh's SEC detractors in the process. "I'm great with whatever college football says, because it doesn't affect us," Shaw told reporters after Stanford's spring game. "It doesn't make sense for us to go hold a camp some place where there might be one person in the entire state that's eligible to get into Stanford."
5. Shaw has bigger things to worry about. He has to pick a quarterback to replace Kevin Hogan, who helped lead the Cardinal to three Pac-12 titles in four seasons. Rising junior Keller Chryst may have entered spring as the favorite, but Saturday's spring game suggested Chryst or senior Ryan Burns could effectively lead the offense. Both threw a pair of touchdowns with one interception, and both seemed comfortable being in control. Whoever wins the job can take comfort in that fact that much of his responsibility will involve handing the ball to Christian McCaffrey and watching him make magic. McCaffrey made only a brief cameo in the spring game to field punts. He didn't need to prove anything.
6. Speaking of undecided quarterback competitions, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told reporters after Saturday's spring game that he isn't ready to make a decision in the Tigers' three-man race. Redshirt sophomore Sean White took the initial snaps with the first-team offense, but White, senior Jeremy Johnson and redshirt junior John Franklin III all got chances to lead the first- and second-team units. With all three quarterbacks wearing non-contact jerseys, it was difficult to tell how any would truly look running Auburn's read-option heavy scheme. Franklin, a junior college transfer who is the best runner of the three, completed 7 of 11 passes for 61 yards. One was an underthrown 40-yard touchdown pass that receiver Marcus Davis adjusted well to catch. Johnson completed 6 of 13 attempts for 35 yards with one score. White, meanwhile, completed 8 of 14 passes for 125 yards.
Afterward, Johnson said he intends to stay at Auburn and compete for the job. He also mentioned that he planned to get his degree in December. That's a new piece of information. Johnson had previously planned to try to graduate in May. White told reporters he felt like the job was his to lose, and Franklin said he came to the Tigers to win the starting job. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will have to break the deadlock, but that decision may not come until August or September.
7. Earlier this spring, Malzahn let the SEC Network's Maria Taylor test drive his new BMW i8 (sticker price: $140,700). Malzahn said the car was a 50th birthday present to himself, but it also probably helps him a little in recruiting.
8. Freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain was the star of South Carolina's spring game, going 19 of 26 passing for 169 yards with two touchdowns. McIlwain's performance capped an interesting week in Gamecocks quarterback news.
On Wednesday, Opelika (Ala.) High junior quarterback Jake Bentley announced that he would skip his senior season to enroll at South Carolina over the summer.
Bentley is the son of Gamecocks running backs coach Bobby Bentley, who was a longtime high school coach in the Palmetto State before he moved to eastern Alabama in 2014 to become an analyst on the Auburn staff. Presumably, Jake will get a crack at winning the starting job. So will redshirt senior Perry Orth, who missed Saturday's scrimmage after breaking his collarbone earlier this spring. The race could also include Lorenzo Nunez, a sophomore who missed the spring game with a knee injury, as well as redshirt junior Connor Mitch and redshirt sophomore Michael Scarnecchia.
Don't expect the competition to stay crowded for long. McIlwain and Orth are expected to emerge as the finalists, but first-year coach Will Muschamp's stockpiling suggests he has learned from his ill-fated tenure at Florida. During Muschamp's final two seasons in Gainesville, the Gators were so thin at quarterback that they couldn't generate enough competition to find an effective starter. It seems Muschamp wants to make sure he has numbers at the position from this point forward.
9. Bryan Sperry, 90, scored a touchdown during the Kansas alumni game this weekend. I hope I can move this well at 40. (And sorry, Kansas coach David Beaty. Sperry is out of eligibility.)
10. Meanwhile, South Carolina's first All-America selection scored a touchdown in the Gamecocks' alumni game. When did Lou Sossamon earn those All-America honors? In 1942. He's 94 now.
What's eating Andy?
Selecting the songs for the random ranking section took me deeper down the hair band YouTube rabbit hole than I care to admit. Yes, this song is even creepier in 2016 than it was in 1988. Yes, I still understand why Stewart was drawn wearing a Winger T-shirt on Beavis and Butt-Head.
What's Andy eating?
The man from the Florida Barbecue Association offered up a few tips before we began judging the Swamp Wing Cook-off prior to Florida's spring game Friday. He told us judges—four people, including me—to pay attention to presentation, taste and moisture, but he did not delve too deep into specifics, because he didn't want to affect what each of us considered a quality wing. So, as I waited for the entries to arrive, I went through a mental checklist of what components made my perfect wing.
I don't care if a wing is fried, smoked, grilled or sautéed. I only care if it is fried, smoked, grilled or sautéed well. A wing left in the fryer too long is a paperweight. A wing left in the smoker too long is a choking hazard. Just as some people have their preferred meat for barbecue, some people have their preferred method of cooking wings. I have neither. I embrace variety. Just mind the internal temperature.
I also don't have a preference for dry rub or sauce. Rub is less messy, but unlike pork and beef barbecue, where I prefer to taste the meat absent sauce, wings taste like chicken. They can benefit from occasional saucy companionship. Sauce opens up entirely different flavor possibilities on the relatively blank poultry canvas. Just as with the cooking method, don't overdo it. They don't make spicy Fun Dip for a reason, so don't bury the meat beneath a mountain of rub. And just as in the barbecue world, don't drown the meat in sauce. A little adds to the flavor; a lake suggests a cook has no confidence in the preparation of the meat.
With those relatively loose criteria, I prepared to eat. Before the double-blind judging—we didn't know which wings came from which team, and the teams didn't know which numbered box featured their wings—began, we had toured the tailgating sites of the competitors. Jason Ross had hauled a massive custom smoker 45 minutes up Interstate 75 from Ocala, Fla. The rig could cook hundreds of pounds of meat at once, and its Gators-heavy paintjob left no doubt as to which team he supports. Ross's smoker can use gas or wood, and he wisely opted for wood Friday. Another competitor had a huge wood-burning pizza oven. I've had wings cooked in coal pizza ovens at Anthony's in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Bob's Victory Grill in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The memory of wings that were juicy and crispy at the same time gave me high hopes for this team's entry. Another competitor had a sauté pan and a stove. Meanwhile, Bill Gair had the Weber grill from his backyard.
Gair, a research administrator at Florida, came armed with a trusty recipe that has drawn raves in the past. I didn't see anyone's wings before the competition, but Gair seemed confident. If he won anything, he planned to donate it to the United Way of North Central Florida. (He sits on the organization's board.) His cooking implement cost far less than those of his competition, but he was about to crush everyone.
Gair's habanero orange bourbon wings made their debut during the second of three categories. We had judged the dry rub division—Ross's smoked wings took first place, so he got some cash and McElwain's autograph on his smoker—when folks from the Florida athletic association's marketing department began opening the lids on the entries from the wet division. The wings in box No. 5 drew an audible gasp. They looked perfect. They were crispy with just a little char and sauce that had been cooked into a glaze rather than ladled over them. If they tasted like they looked, the wet and overall divisions would be easy to judge.
I grabbed one of the wings from box No. 5 first. It was spicy, but not to the point of distraction. Sweetness came in just behind the heat, but neither flavor overwhelmed the juicy chicken. A wing sitting in a puddle of that sauce might taste like too much of everything, but a wing with the right amount of it cooked into the skin tasted like one I wanted to eat about 50 more times. I tried the other entries and then had another wing from box No. 5 to make sure it deserved the perfect 10s the first taste had suggested. One entry was doused in a sauce so hot that its only practical use is winning bar bets. Another was drenched in a basic buffalo sauce that would have been better in a smaller dose. Another had an Asian-influenced sauce that completely dissolved into the skin. That one was delicious, but box No. 5 had set the bar too high.
Gair's wings cruised in the overall division as well. The wings covered with fresh garlic and Parmesan cheese were ambitious. The entrant who made a salsa verde for his wings earned points for creativity, but the flavors just didn't work together. Those Asian-influenced wings made a second appearance and were inhaled by the judges, but they still couldn't top the habanero orange bourbon flappers Gair made on a grill just about anyone can buy. Gair collected $900 for the United Way and one sportswriter who is dying to recreate his recipe at home.