Place-kickers are a different breed of football player. Under normal circumstances, they don’t block, they don’t tackle, they don’t run the ball, throw the ball or catch the ball. Their uniforms rarely get dirty. They practice on the side of the field, away from their teammates, except for their accomplices, the snapper and the holder.
But it’s a fickle, sometimes cruel art. It’s very binary. It’s good or it’s not good. No wiggle room. The difference between a 40-yard punt and a 39-yard punt is one yard. The difference between a field goal six inches inside the upright and one six inches outside the upright can mean a game, perhaps a season. Miss it and you’re all alone. The other 10 guys don’t exist. Maybe it was a bad snap or a bad hold but the scorecard says the kicker missed.
Look at Duke, a school that recruited prep studs like Brent Garber, Alex Feinberg and Joe Surgan and watched them crash-and-burn at the collegiate level, while walk-on Matt Brooks beat Clemson from 53 yards. Walk-on Will Snyderwine is an All-America one year and loses his mojo the next season and misses more than half his field-goal attempts.
For one magical four-year period Ross Martin seduced us with the idea that place-kicking-stability could be achieved.
Martin wasn’t perfect. We’d all like to have a do-over on that 2014 miss against Virginia Tech. But Martin was 78-of-93 on field goals and missed only one of 197 PATs, that as a freshman
Martin kicked four seasons at Duke, finishing in 2015. Since then, Duke has not had a place-kicker in consecutive seasons and that will again be the case this season.
- A.J. Reed came in from Alabama in 2016, poised to take over from Martin.
Reed was ranked as the number 11 prep place-kicker by scout.com. He didn’t just wander in off the street.
But he missed his first collegiate field-goal, a modest 30-yarder against Wake Forest. Then another, then another. The more he missed, the harder he tried, the harder he tried, the more he missed, his technique and rhythm falling apart.
Reed didn’t make a field goal after Duke’s fifth game and eventually Duke gave up, attempting only four kicks over the final seven games. A 30-yarder against Virginia Tech was blocked and returned for a touchdown, a 10-point turnaround in a game Duke lost 24-21.
Reed ended the season 3-of-10 on field goals, 37-of-38 on extra points.
Reed was an apparent lost cause. Punter Austin Parker took on the added role of place-kicker in 2017, while Reed sat. Duke decided to lighten Parker’s load and asked him to just punt last season. Previously unused walk-on Colin Wareham took over in 2018, while Reed sat.
But Reed wasn’t sitting during the week. Away from the spotlights, he refused to hang it up. He worked on his own, worked with special-teams coach Kirk Benedict, lifted weights, ran, got stronger, got quicker, resisted the temptation to take the easy way out and transfer.
He got his chance in the middle of last season when Jack Driggers was injured on a kickoff. Reed was called on take Driggers’ place on kickoffs and Duke reaped the benefits of all that hard work. Reed averaged 59.4 yards per kickoff-four yards better than Driggers-and had only one of 34 kicks go out of bounds.
While all this was going on Duke signed Charlie Ham, another outstanding high-school place-kicker. Many expected Ham to just walk in and take the place-kicking job and he might well end up there. But Ham did not enroll early this spring, which gave Duke a chance to give Reed a long look and Duke liked what it saw.
Reed emerged as the number one place-kicker and shows no signs of giving up that spot.
Before I go any further, I should mention snapper John Taylor and holders Jackson Hubbard/ These guys don’t get much ink unless they mess up and they don’t mess up. You might not remember Thomas Hennessy but the New York Jets are paying him handsomely to snap in the Big Apple. Patrick Mannelly snapped in the NFL for 16 seasons.
Duke’s first fall 2019 scrimmage was open to the media. Reed made two of three field goals, Ham one of two, all within 40 yards. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t perfect and Duke wants perfect.
“Both of them missed balls tonight they should have made,” David Cutcliffe said right after the scrimmage. “Our snap/hold, you’ve got a minuscule spot. We were eight-for-eight with spots [including PATs] and each one of them missed a kick. When the operation is that good, you should never miss if you’re good enough to play for a power-five team.”
Clearly, some work needed to be done and earlier this week Cutcliffe indicated that Reed and Ham had been doing the work.
“It’s been better. One hundred percent is not unreasonable. Unless it’s the end of the half, we don’t attempt really long field goals. The snap/hold/placement has been outstanding. We were perfect in the [closed to the media] scrimmage. We put some pressure on A.J. and he responded.”
Pressure on a kicker in this context usually involves tired players running laps off a miss.
But that’s still not the kind of pressure Reed will face in Atlanta, on national TV, against Alabama. Reed is from Alabama, Ham from Georgia, as if either needs additional motivation.
A successful 2019 season from Reed would be a great redemption story. But more importantly, Duke isn’t good enough to have a great season without winning close games and it’s difficult to win close games without making field goals. So, Reed will be under a big spotlight this season and his ability to successfully navigate that spotlight will be a key determinant in Duke’s success.