Auburn, Ala.--Looking for someone to replace John Vaughn, Matt Clark and Kody Bliss on Auburn's special teams this season, the Tigers have been busy during fall camp looking at every aspect of the kicking game to try to find an able replacement. So far in the race for kicking duties it appears to be a three-man battle as sophomore Zach Kutch and walk-on Graham Sutter have both been impressive but perhaps no one has looked as good as true freshman Wes Byrum.
Showing the leg strength and accuracy that made him one of the nation's top prep kickers out of St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. last year, Byrum has been consistent kicking field goals with 36 of 40 made in preseason this year. He has also shown the ability to kick off in the endzone from the 30-yard line and even punted some when Ryan Shoemaker was out with a groin injury. All of the work he's done has Byrum a tired individual by days end.
"It has been real taxing," Byrum said. "I didn't punt at all in high school and I punted in the all-american game. That was really hard because at one point you're warming up for field goals and the offense gets a five-yard gain but not enough to kick. To punt and then kick a field goal right after is tough. I had a hard time with that. We kick a lot as it is. I kick a lot more than I ever have. Doing all three on top of that is tough. I'm not doing punt as much now because Shoe (Ryan Shoemaker) is back. I was waiting for him. I was telling him every day that he needed to get back.
"In high school I didn't kick anywhere close to this," Byrum added. "What I kick here in two days is what I kicked in a week in high school. We kicked a lot but it was more drills. We do more drills than I did in high school and kick more balls. We kick more because they don't know who it is yet so there is a lot of charting. They want to see us kick a lot."
After pulling triple duty for a full week, Byrum got back to just kicking on Monday night and the results were fantastic. In a competition for the starting job, Byrum was a perfect 4-4 on the night. That included a final field goal of 45 yards that would have been easily good from 60. His was the only make out of the four kickers and finished off what he called a successful practice.
"It was a pretty good night," Byrum said. "I hit the ball well. We all have to do better as a group but I hit it well."
His leg strength has already become legendary even though many have never seen him kick in person. His highlight videos from high school showed stands put up behind the goal posts on each end of the field so fans could cheer his kickoffs going out of the back of the endzone. He said that he's always had a strong leg and it makes it easy for him to kick longer field goals.
"With mechanics you're not supposed to change anything whether it's a 20-yarder or a 50-yarder," Byrum said. "A lot of people get back there and try to kill it. I know I have the leg strength to get it there so I just swing through normally and let it go."
With four guys competing for one job you may think it would bring out the worst in guys as the pressure to perform would cause stress but Byrum said that's not the case at all. In fact he said that having each other to lean on has made it more fun for him and also made him perform better on the field.
"Every day when we go out it's not like we see something wrong and don't say anything," Byrum said. "We're not like that. We'll help each other. If you're the better kicker then you're the better kicker. We're not going to try to mess somebody up or have them do good. We're going to tell them what they're doing wrong. I do better with competition. If people don't push me then I might start to lag. It's good that we're all kicking well."
Now that he's put himself firmly in position to be kicking in some form or fashion for the Auburn Tigers on opening night against Kansas State, Byrum said that he must continue to perform if he hopes to remain in the mix. "We've got two weeks left that I have to keep going so there's no comfort zone," Byrum said. "I still have to work hard and push myself."