To bridge the gap from the end of sports for the 2014-15 year to the unofficial beginning of sports for the 2015-16 year (SEC Media Days), we’ll be running four series of four items each over the next month in a feature appropriately, if not creatively, titled four-by-four. With Mississippi State football being the focus, we’ll look at four breakout candidates, four position battles, four potential All-SEC players and four possible statistical leaders.
This week, we’re breaking down four position battles, continuing today with field goal kicker.
Kicking field goals is the hardest easy thing in football. Or maybe it’s the easiest hard thing. Either way, swinging your leg to make the top part of your foot collide with an oblong inflated piece of leather to make it go higher than the outstretched arms of jumping gargantuans immediately in front of you and force it travel anywhere from 60-150 feet in a somewhat straight line so that it goes between two long neon-colored posts hovering in the sky and above one similarly-painted pipe at the bottom of those two is probably more difficult than it looks. Especially when it’s done in front of tens of thousands of people.
Some people get nervous just going to karaoke night.
But to many kickers, the games are the easy part compared to the contrived mental torture that is daily practice. For the majority of practice at Mississippi State, similar to games, the kickers stay out of the action. They’re on their own field, receiving their own individual instruction and doing their own individual drills. When the rest of the team gathers for scrimmages, the special teams guys are the next field over just kicking and stretching away.
At the very end, however, the kickers have their moment. Once the scrimmaging is done, the red zone work finished and the routes and coverages perfected, the whole team gathers to watch field goal attempts. Unlike a game, where the crowd is separated from the kickers by sidelines and stands, the 100-plus players and coaches at practice form a semi-circle wrapping around the kickers, barely giving them room to breathe, let alone move.
If kicks are missed, it often means more running for the whole team. If they’re made, of course, the prize is less running. You can imagine the pressure from the triple-digit crowd of 300-pound men who have already been sweating and running all practice. Often, the offense and defense are divided up with one kicker representing offense and another the defense. By that time, one side is pressuring you not to miss, while the other is doing everything in its power to distract you, louder and more animated than a student section behind a basketball goal during free throws.
Start with 25-yard kicks, one for each kicker. Next are 30-yard kicks, then 35, and 40 and so on. The coaches are keeping count of who makes more, who gets to kick in games. The surrounding teammates are trying to figure out how much they’ll have to run.
Make a kick and one side goes wild, drawing you into their celebration, while the other side yells in disgust and tries to claim it must have been wide left or just short. Miss a kick, and you have to drop your head while your side shows disappointment and the opposition rushes forward to sarcastically pat you on the back and sing the praises of your defeat.
So what’s worse: 80,000 strangers in far away stands, or 100 of your teammates breathing down your neck who know your every weakness and strength, aware of exactly how to lift you up or bring you down?
If you can make that 40-yard field goal in practice, the theory seems to be, knocking in a 40-yarder on gameday should be a piece of cake.
The following question, then, is who gets the honor of that cake for MSU in 2015? The main candidates are senior Devon Bell and sophomore Westin Graves. Graves has the more recent experience, having attempted one field goal in 2014 (a miss from 40-plus) and connecting on 4-of-5 extra point attempts, while Bell hasn’t kicked since early in 2013.
Evan Sobiesk quietly had one of the best seasons by a kicker in MSU history last year, going 12-of-14 on field goals and racking up a team-high total of 92 points, two more than second place Dak Prescott. With his success, there wasn’t much need for Graves or Bell or anyone else to be kicking field goals. Graves quietly waited his turn while Bell focused on punting (and did a good job of that). But now, Sobes is off to dental school and someone has to take his place.
Even before Sobiesk left the picture, Bell had the biggest leg of the group, which is why he was on kickoffs for so long. He had a rough 2013, connecting on 6-of-14 attempts, though he was 4-of-5 inside 30 and hit 25-of-26 extra points, part of why he focused solely on punting in 2014.
We’ve shared the numbers for Graves, but it’s also worth mentioning a lesser-known fact: Graves often tied or even beat Sobiesk in those slightly terrifying end-of-practice field goal sessions, regularly splitting the uprights even from 40-plus yards out. Sobiesk kept the job because of his success, but Graves absolutely pushed him in practice.
Now, heading into the 2015, the job is up for grabs. Bell and Graves both had their highs and lows in spring practice, and both have shown an ability at various times in their careers to make the kick. At this point, the edge might have to go to the senior in Bell, an experienced veteran with plans to kick in the NFL after college. But both will have their opportunities to win the job in practice and in games, Dan Mullen will make sure of that.