THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Saturday’s scrimmage will go a long way in determining who Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay keeps around as his kicker for the 2020 season.
With Greg Zuerlein moving on to the Dallas Cowboys, McVay has a three-man competition for the job between former CFL standout Lirim Harjrullahu, XFL and AAF product Austin MacGinnis and seventh-round selection Samuel Sloman.
None of the three kickers has made a kick in an NFL regular-season game.
McVay said the Rams may keep a second kicker on the practice squad due to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, but likely will have one kicker on the active roster handling both place-kicking and kickoff duties.
“All three guys bring certain things to the table,” McVay said. “It’s how many different pressure situations can you try to create in these practice settings to truly evaluate guys that are younger players. You’ve got a rookie and some other guys that don’t have a whole lot of experience at this level, but I think they’ve done a nice job.”
All three kickers benefit from having an experienced specialty group on the roster in punter and holder Johnny Hekker and long snapper Jake McQuiade -- so the operation should not be an issue.
“You’re judged strictly on whether it went in or went out, not how pretty it looked, or how high or how far it would have been good from,” McQuiade said about the kicking competition. “It matters if it went through. You definitely feel that every single day there is that pressure, it’s a mental game as much as it’s a physical game. They all have the physical abilities to kick it as far as you need it and the mental side of it. They all have done very well so far.”
Along with McVay and general manager Les Snead, helping to make the decision will be new special teams coach John Bonamego, who replaced John Fassel now serving in the same role with the Cowboys.
Hekker also will lend his voice to that process.
“I'm really just focusing on giving my best as far as holding for them,” Hekker said. “I’m going to have some input as far as, ‘Okay, what do you see?’ But, at the end of the day that is coach and management’s decision. I’m going to give my input when asked, but nothing unsolicited.”
To help better understand what kickers are going through, former NFL kicker Nick Novak was gracious enough to provide some time. Novak kicked for 11 seasons in the NFL with five different teams, making 82 percent of his career field goals.
Novak also kicked in the XFL, AAF and NFL Europe. He’s been on the good side and bad side of stressful kicking competitions, and now trains kickers and punters looking to reach the league in his hometown of San Diego.
“You have to be ready for anything,” Novak said. “The guys who can perform best under any circumstance and situation I believe will win out, and I speak from personal experiences.
“Head down and work. Be a pro, learn from the vets in the building and leave every day at work with no regrets.”
The 30-year-old Ontario native spent six seasons in the Canadian Football League. In the CFL, Harjrullahu handled place-kicking, kickoff and punting duties, so that could be an advantage if the Rams wanted to keep someone around with versatility due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harjrullahu also had to perform in tough weather conditions in Canada. He finished with a career 83.3 percent field goal percentage in six seasons in the CFL, with a long of 56 yards.
During last week’s scrimmage, Harjrullahu was the only kicker to make all five kicks – two from 38 yards, one from 43, one from 48 yards and one from 50 yards.
Novak said he doesn’t know Harjrullahu well, but he’s seen him kick at former NFL kicker John Carney’s kicking camp.
“He’s very consistent,” Novak said. “I know he’s had a lot of success in the CFL. He’s a veteran. I know he’s a rookie in the NFL, but he’s got some good experience under his belt, and I think that will serve him well.
“You might see team’s holding two kickers or putting a guy on the practice squad that can backup all three positions. So if he doesn’t win the job, maybe another team will pick him up right away, but he’d be a good practice squad candidate because he can do all three, and that’s a very valuable thing for guys this year.”
MacGinnis, 25, was an All-SEC selection at Kentucky, where he finished with the school record for field goals (51) and and 80 percent field goal percentage.
MacGinnis attended the Chicago Bears rookie minicamp in 2018 and tried out again 2019, but did not win the job.
He latched on with the Memphis Express of the AAF in 2019, finishing nine of 11 on field goals, with a long of 51 yards. MacGinner later played for XFL’s Dallas Renegades, going a perfect 10 of 10 on field goals before that league folded.
MacGinnis missed just one of five field goals in last week’s scrimmage.
“I’ve always been really impressed with his ability,” Novak said. “I saw him play in the AAF, and so that was very impressive, just to see him in warm-ups and practicing here in San Diego.
“I’ve always thought he was on the verge of making it, so I think he’s going to put up a really good fight for that job. … He’s got a very repeatable swing. He’s got a good demeanor, very focused, professional mindset
“I was impressed by how much of a student of the game he was, but more impressive was how that ball kind of sounded coming off his foot, and how high it goes and the rotation. There isn’t a whole lot of play on his ball flight, it’s just a nice, straight ball. It reminds me a lot of Greg Zuerlein’s power and how he contacts the ball. I think he has that similar pop that Greg has.”
Selected in the seventh round of this year’s draft by the Rams out of Miami of Ohio, Sloman made 80 percent of his field goals during his career for the RedHawks.
McVay played receiver at Miami of Ohio.
Sloman, 22, finished his time with the RedHawks ranked second in field goals made (49) and fourth in school history in total points (259). He also made four of five field goals from beyond 50 yards for his career at Miami, including a 53-yard game winner.
However, during the scrimmage last week Sloman missed 38 and 50 yards.
“I have not seen him in person, so I can’t give you a good analysis on him,” Novak said. “But my rookie year I was in a similar situation like this, competing with four other guys in Chicago. And you can’t be looking to your side or at how another guy is doing.
“You have to put the blinders on and be very intent on your day. Try to be the first guy in the building, be a great teammate and do everything you are asked, and more. And when it’s time to perform and kick in team drills, two-minute drills or scrimmages, make sure you’re always putting your best on film. It doesn’t matter if the other guy goes 100 percent. If he does, you need to go 100 percent.”