Inside Rob Beard's big bunt

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Couldn't help myself. Had to go back and review/dissect/analyze/geek out on one play in particular from last Saturday. In so doing, I got a cool story from a guy who's lucky to be on the field this season.

Before singlehandedly wresting momentum from Stanford in the Ducks' 52-31 win over the Cardinal a week ago, before earning the starting job in fall camp, Oregon kicker Rob Beard lay in a hospital bed in critical condition. After coming to the aid of "a fellow kicker" early in the morning on January 24, he was kicked in the head by several assailants, suffering multiple facial fractures. "I told myself in the hospital, I'm gonna fight through this," Beard recalls. "I'm gonna overcome it, I'm gonna get back on the field."

One of my sisters once brought a kicker home to dinner. During that repast, my brother Mark, then a Division I defensive tackle, cheerfully shared this opinion: "I've always felt that, on the back of a kicker's jersey, it should just say, 'Kicker' -- kind of like 'Batboy.'"

He probably didn't mean it. Because when the team needs the kicker, it really needs him. Trailing the Cardinal 21-10 early in the second quarter last Saturday, Oregon needed Beard to make a play. Five days earlier, he and the other kickers had met with special teams coach Tom Osborne, who was a bit more excited than usual. "Coach Oz" had noticed something in his film study, and now spoke of an "opportunity" awaiting the kickoff team.

Special teams coaches at every level harp ceaselessly on these points: 1) Once a kickoff has traveled 10 yards, it's a live ball. 2) The return team's four front-line guys, who line up 15 yards from the ball, are not to drop back until they're sure it's been kicked deep. Breaking down film, Osborne noticed that at least one of Stanford's front-line players was bailing a second early. He would make the visitors pay for that.

"There's an opportunity to bunt the ball here," Coach Oz informed the kickers -- "bunt," naturally, meaning onside kick. So the Ducks repped the play all week.

It's a peculiar skill that eludes some kickers, as Ducks fans learned the hard way a year ago. (With Oregon storming back against the Cardinal, backup punter Tim Taylor's onside kick went only eight yards. Stanford recovered, then iced the game with a field goal.) But Osborne was struck by Beard's consistency. After "12 or 13" practice repetitions, by Osborne's estimate, the redshirt sophomore was batting a thousand. Beard had also recovered a fair number of those -- also by design. His kickoff team had been instructed to wipe out any white jerseys they saw.

It was decided: The bunt kick was a go! Oregon would spring the trap on its second kickoff.

When that moment came, Osborne gathered the kickoff team around him. "All right guys, this is gonna be a big play for us," Beard recalls Osborne saying. "We've got to get it."

"I've practiced this twenty times," Beard told himself, slightly inflating the number. "This is going to be easy."

It was not the most high-stakes kick he's made this season. A walk-on from Fullerton, Calif., Beard had earned the kicking job in the preseason. As he was lining up a 35-yard field goal in practice on September 10, the day before the Ducks' game at Tennessee, Chip Kelly sidled up to him.

"If you make this kick," Kelly said, "I'll give you a scholarship."

"I looked at him, and I said, 'OK'," says Beard, who is not the excitable type. "There was no way I was missing that one. I just lined it up and took a deep breath. I was calm as a butterfly -- just kicked the ball and watched it go through the posts."

Not long after, with the team bunched around him, Kelly told his kicker, "Rob, tell the guys what I just told you." Beard did.

"Rob, you got a scholarship," Kelly announced, and a cheer went up over the practice field.

After that session, the team boarded buses for the airport, for the flight to Knoxville. Beard remembers sitting on the bus, thinking, "I've been waiting three years for this, and finally got it."

He'd come a long way in eight months. Lying in the ICU at the Sacred Heart Medical Center in critical condition, his football future was highly uncertain. Knocked to the ground in a brawl that had involved some 20 people, he suffered a broken nose and fractured bones around his eyes. (He was also cited for harassment for his role in the fight, and suspended from the team's opener against New Mexico.)

Beard made up for lost time against Portland State, converting 11 extra points and booting two field goals. They day after Kelly's surprise, he vindicated the coach with two field goals, and six more PATs, at Tennessee. But his first truly clutch kick of the season was that 'bunt" against the Cardinal.

In this replay, you see him selling a deep kick, right up until the moment he pulls back, just tapping the top of the ball. You see Stanford's middle two front-line guys bailing early. The Cardinal's Jackson Cummings actually stays home and is in position to recover the kick -- until he is leveled by reserve linebacker Boseko Lokombo. Tracking the ball like a bloodhound, Beard lets it travel the requisite 30 feet, then snatches it out of the air on its third hop.

"Good effort here by Beard!" proclaims ABC's Kirk Herbstreit. "Who says kickers aren't athletes?"

Yeah, Mark. Who would ever say something like that?