Even best kickers relegated to second-class status as recruits
Four years ago, Auburn signed a top 10 recruiting class that included many of the players who wound up starring for last season's national championship team: defensive linemen Nick Fairley and Antoine Carter, linebacker Josh Bynes and offensive linemen Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh. No player, however, was rated higher at his position than Wes Byrum, Rivals.com's No. 2 kicker.
Yet the same guy rated so highly in his position group -- the same guy who wound up hitting four game-winning field goals during his time at Auburn, including in the BCS title game -- was essentially dead weight when it came to the Tigers' class ranking. Because Byrum was just a three-star recruit in Rivals' eyes, his mere presence dragged down the average rating for a class with 10 four- and five-star prospects.
Every team wants to have a good kicker -- just not on Signing Day. It's bad for the score.
Despite the fact that the majority of highly ranked kickers and punters go on to become four-year starters and affect the outcome of countless games, even the best are relegated to three-star status. That reality puts this year's top-rated kicker (according to Rivals, Texas A&M commit Taylor Bertolet) behind at least 24 cornerbacks, 36 wide receivers and 47 offensive linemen.
"I think [the recruiting sites] do a good job of identifying [the top kickers], but not necessarily attaching a true value to their talents," said Chris Sailer, a former UCLA kicker who now runs the nation's most prominent camps and contests for high school kickers. "I've never understood why they don't do it like quarterback, running back and wide receiver, where the top guy [is] a five-star guy."
It's no surprise Sailer sticks up for his kicking brethren. But it's also no secret that in both college and the NFL, kickers and punters aren't viewed as equals by their teammates. Why would the typical recruitnik act differently?
"When people complain, why don't you give [kickers] four stars or five stars -- it's never going to happen," said Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell. "Besides, the only people complaining about it -- they're either related to them, or people that have them committed to their school. Otherwise, no one cares."
"You just can't weigh them the same because: a) they're not hitting anybody, b) they're not getting hit or c) on the field for any consistent length of time," Farrell added.
The lack of time on the field is generally the biggest detriment to kickers' perceived value. Why rank a kicker ahead of a talented quarterback who might throw 40 times a game or a left tackle who might play every offensive snap all season?
Of course, all that game-long work can be for naught without a reliable kicker to put points on the board in a low-scoring game that goes down to the wire. And just one such game can affect the entire scope of a team's season.
Erik Folk, a two-star recruit, was Scout.com's eighth-ranked kicker in the class of 2007. Without his game-winning 32-yard field goal to beat USC 32-31 on Oct. 2, Washington doesn't end its eight-year bowl drought. Dustin Hopkins was Rivals' top-ranked kicker in 2009. Without his game-winning 55-yard kick against Clemson on Nov. 14, Florida State doesn't reach its first ACC Championship Game in five years.
"How many times have we seen a game come down to a last-second kick?" said Scout.com national editor Allen Wallace, who works with a team of analysts in ranking players. "Generally speaking, I can't get people to rate kickers higher. There's a lot of resistance to it. But I think it's a mistake."
Interestingly, kickers and punters are arguably the easiest positions for which to project future success. Thanks to the advent of regional and national camps like Sailer's (Chris Sailer Kicking) and former Iowa State kicker Jamie Kohl's (Kohl's Professional Camps), college aspirants get numerous chances to showcase themselves for coaches and analysts, who can quantitatively measure their leg strength, accuracy and hang time.
Both Rivals and Scout rely heavily on camp results in their evaluations because kickers' tapes "are all the same thing," said Farrell. "It's a DVD of every kick they've made since they were 2." But by the time Signing Day rolls around each year, Sailer estimates he's seen about 80 percent of that year's Division I signees in person.
"Because we run major national events, it's much easier to get accurate statistics," said Sailer, who ranks the top 12 seniors and underclassmen every year at his National Kicking Event in Las Vegas. "With kickers, some kids have the leg strength but are raw in terms of their technique, and some are very accurate but lack leg strength. But the overwhelming majority generally pan out."
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"Obviously I believe with kickers, punters and even long snappers, you need a great one to be successful," said Sailer. "I see their value being just as important as a lineman or safety."
But like any position, kicker has its share of recruiting busts, too. One in particular helps make Farrell's case.
In 2007, San Diego native Billy Bennett was the top-rated kicker on Rivals and No. 2 on Scout. He signed with Boston College. After handling kickoffs as a freshman, Bennett was indefinitely suspended for a violation of team rules the next year and eventually left school.
Had he panned out, Bennett presumably would have been the successor to Steve Aponavicius, who memorably went from face-painting superfan one year to walk-on starter the next, finishing his four-year career as the school's all-time leading scorer.
"I can guarantee you this," said Farrell. "There is no superfan that can come out of the stands at Miami and do what [former five-star prospect] Seantrel Henderson does at left tackle for the Hurricanes."
However, no one is suggesting that Kyle Brindza, Scout.com's top-ranked kicker this year, should be rated the No. 1 player in the country, as Henderson was last year. Heck, the Notre Dame commit doesn't even need to be ranked 100th.
But it would be nice if Brindza at least got that fourth star so that Brian Kelly's class -- currently ranked seventh with a 3.57 star average -- isn't penalized for signing the best player in the country at his position.