Don't play mind games with kickers

If there's a uniquely solitary position on the squad, it has to be placekickers. Except for certain segments of practice, the kickers usually work alone. Alone on the practice field, alone on the sidelines and painfully alone on the field waiting for the ball to be snapped and placed down. So for your average football coach, kickers present a special challenge. "Is it different coaching those guys?" asked Tide Special Teams Coordinator Mark Tommerdahl. "Yeah, it's definitely different."

"Those guys are really under the ultimate spotlight or microscope. It's an extremely high profile position."

With freshman walk-on kicker Brian Bostick (#1) beside him, Coach Tommerdahl checks his notes during practice last spring.

Besides coaching tight ends for Alabama, Tommerdahl's job includes coordinating the kicking game. And he understands the isolated but vital role they play on the team. "In an organization everybody normally points to the quarterback as the featured player," Tommerdahl explained. "And that goes on at all levels. They make the most money, and maybe they do deserve the most attention. But a quarterback gets a chance to make a drive, while a kicker may get no more than 2-3 chances to make a kick in a game. And if he misses that one kick at the end, then we're always going to remember that one play.

"I think that really puts them in a different category, because of what's expected of them and the type of pressure that they're under."

Whether trotting on the field to clinch a victory with an extra point kick or lining up a 50-yarder, time after time the outcome of a hard-fought game rests solely on the lone placekicker. "Based on my experience, you have to put an awful lot of trust in your kickers," Tommerdahl said. "Kicking a football is like golf. If you golf with four guys, they're all going to do a different thing on every swing. Now you can coach them constantly, but really all you'll do is screw them up.

"In the same way, if you're my kicker, I can tell you something that you're doing wrong after every kick. But the same thing will probably happen. So I think it's very important that you get kickers that you can trust."

But wait a minute. Tommerdahl can't be serious. After all, isn't it the coach's job to be constantly scrutinizing his athletes, looking for fine points to correct?

Apparently not.

The Tide coaches are hoping for another good year from placekicker Neal Thomas, shown here kicking out of the hold of Lane Bearden.

"I do not have the kind of kicking expertise where I can correct everything they do," Tommerdahl stated flatly. "And you can print that. We are strong believers in recruiting kickers that have been well trained. I think a large part of our job is to put those kickers in the right mental state."

Tommerdahl's point is obvious. Though there are base-level techniques that kickers should keep in mind while practicing, every athlete is different. Watch a hundred different baseball players and no two swings will be alike. And in the same way, every kicker is unique.

But common to every successful placekicker is a requisite mental toughness. And that's where Tommerdahl believes coaching should play a role. "It's important to put them in situations where they're tested with confidence," he explained. "And that's really enough said. We create situations on that practice field to test them. It's our job to make sure that they learn to perform with confidence."

But what happens when a youngster has lost that mental edge? Just like a golfer can be suddenly afflicted with hooks and slices, placekickers can also find themselves in terrible slumps. "You would refer back to a few simple technique corrections, which would probably come off of film study," Tommerdahl replied. "And then you ease him back into the system.

"If a kid is shanking them from 15 yards out, it doesn't do him a whole lot of good to put him out there in front of the whole team the next day. Why put him out there just to shank them from 20 yards? You are careful in what you ask him to do--or you use another player."

Pictured with Wide Receivers Coach Kenny Pope last spring, Tommerdahl is entrusted with coordinating the entire Alabama kicking game.

Interestingly, with a placekicker going through a stubborn slump, Tommerdahl would advise holding him out of ‘live' kicking even during practice. Because the worst thing that can happen to a kicker is to lose his mental edge. "You're dealing with a unique individual in a unique situation," Tommerdahl explained. "And you've got to protect his confidence.

"You don't play mind games with kickers."

Having first joined his staff at New Mexico in 1997, Tommerdahl and Dennis Franchione have a history together of developing outstanding special teams. But the Minnesota native declines to take credit for the success. "Schematically, there's really nothing that we do differently," Tommerdahl said. "The interest that our staff puts into it spreads to our players. I give credit to the people that I work with and also to our players."

But Bama's head coach is more direct in praising his Special Teams Coordinator. "Mark makes sure that we give (special teams) ample time," Franchione said. "He organizes and does the quality control. He breaks down every kick during the season and puts it in a quality control notebook. What was good, what wasn't good, what our averages were.

"Mark could be an NFL special teams guy some day, because he's found a niche there and does a good job with it."

But don't bother asking Tommerdahl about the possibility of a future in pro football, because his complete focus is on Alabama. "We'll just try and get through tomorrow," he said with a laugh. "That's our plan. I'm very happy where I am."

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