What's So Special About CU's Kickers?

You think kickers get no love? The guys who spend every practice off by themselves playing hacky sack with the pigskin? The players who wear shoulder pads on game day, but God help their team if they ever have to make a tackle? The guys who might actually put down the remote and watch a soccer game on television? You think kickers are at the bottom of the college football food chain? What about the guys whose sole job is to make it so the kickers can do their jobs?

(The following story appears in the September issue of the Buffalo Sports News magazine).

Let me introduce you to the "unidentified player." Nick Holz spent last season holding the football for one of the best placekickers in the country, Mason Crosby.

"My parents were in Seattle for the (2004 Washington State) game," Holz says. "They saw a photo in a newspaper that said, 'Mason Crosby celebrates with an unidentified player.' I thought, ‘Can't I get something here?'"

His name is Nick Holz. Got it? (BSN)

While a photo caption writer in Seattle may not know who the walk-on is, Holz's teammates do. During August camp last year, players were instructed not to tackle Holz, even when the backup wide receiver was taking part in regular receiver drills. The order came from head coach Gary Barnett. Holz was too valuable as a placeholder on field goals to risk being injured in practice.

This spring, Barnett and his staff honored the other player who touches the ball on field goals. Senior longsnapper Greg Pace earned the Bill McCartney Award, given to the outstanding special teams player.

"He got it because of how consistent he is and how important he is," Barnett said. "Our operation time on both field goals and punts were really at the very top (last fall). They were as good as they could get."

Mason, John, Lou and Ray
Crosby and Torp know how valuable Holz and Pace are to their success, too.

"We're lucky to have Pace and Holz," Crosby says. "They're great at what they do. It makes it a lot easier for me."

Crosby, the big-legged junior from Georgetown, Texas, had six field goals of 50 yards or longer in 2004, more than anyone in the country. His 60-yarder vs. Iowa State in October set a CU record for longest field goal. Crosby, who has kicked 72-yarders in practice, has a shot at breaking the NCAA record of 65 yards before he leaves Colorado.

Torp says having Pace as a longsnapper gives him one less thing to worry about when he lines up for a punt.

"I definitely think I was spoiled last season with Pace," Torp says. "He was accurate every time he snapped the ball."

Good snaps and good holds give Crosby and Torp a better opportunity to excel. Both special teams players should be in the running for All-American honors and individual trophies this fall, Crosby for the Lou Groza and Torp for the Ray Guy Award.

"It's a real asset," Barnett says about his team boasting two of the best foots in the country. "It's an arrow in your quiver that not everybody has."

Last fall, Crosby was 23 of 29 on his field goals. Remarkably, the junior is a perfect 15 of 15 from 40 yards and closer in his career. He said improving accuracy from further out was his focus over the summer.

"I feel like I missed too many field goals last year," Crosby says.

While fans enjoy seeing Crosby line up for the long field goal, he says that's not foremost in his mind.

"I try not to think about the long ones," Crosby says. "You're going to get one of those every so often. All the short ones will make or break a kicker. If I can make all of them inside of 50, I'll be happy. Those long ones — if Coach Barnett gives me a shot, then I'll go out there and take them."

Barnett sent his field goal unit onto the field eight times in 2004 when Holz placed the ball for Crosby to kick 50 yards or further. The coach said he would let Crosby try from the opponent's side of the 50-yard-line, if the circumstances were right.

"It depends on the time of the game," says Barnett. "But let's say at the end of the first half, there's four or five seconds left on the clock, I'd let him kick a 70-yard field goal."

Mile High Malarkey
Torp spent the summer refining his already impressive game, as well. He's the leading active punter in the country heading into the 2005 with a 44.62 career average. He was second in the NCAA in punting (46.4) last fall, and Torp and the Buffs were first in net punting with a 42.43 mark. Torp also landed 22 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard-line, a school record.

Still, Torp, who's added 10 pounds to his frame in recent months, thinks he can improve.

John Torp hopes to become Colorado's second Ray Guy Award winner. (BSN)

"I'm trying to get a lot of hang time this season," he says. "I'm working on my legs in the offseason and on my flexibility. I want to keep that ball up there so my teammates can get down there."

Colorado has produced one Ray Guy winners in its history, Mark Mariscal in 2002, and five first-team All-American punters. Two things probably kept Torp off the award's finalist list last fall. One, the Ray Guy committee thought Torp had too many punts returned to warrant consideration for the honor. The other reason is a national perception that the football travels further at Folsom Field's mile-high altitude.

"I blame that on baseball," says CU sports information director Dave Plati, who worked for a year with the Denver Bears, the area's former minor league team. "I think it's been overblown. The altitude thing is the biggest crock, and it's spilled over and is hurting the punters I've had to push (for awards)."

Plati points out that Torp out-punted every opposing team's punter at Folsom last fall. And Torp's 43.7-yard road average would have ranked him 13th in the country.

"I seriously doubt that anyone else's road average would have ranked that high," Plati says.

Most importantly, Plati says Torp's value is reflected in the team's net punting average, which is determined by punt distance minus return yards.

If last year's Ray Guy committee penalized Torp for having too many punts returned, that's by design. Punt team coach Mike Hankwitz's strategy is to allow a punt return when possible. That way, the Buffaloes have an opportunity to create a turnover and get the ball back.

"How do you hold that against the punter?" Plati asks.

The longtime CU SID and renowned statistics guru has come up with a nickname for Crosby and Torp, and the numbers to back it up.

"I call them FPWs — Field Position Weaponry," Plati says.

Last year, opponents had 159 drives against the Buffs, and 80 of them began inside their own 20-yard-line. Crosby had 41 touchbacks on kickoffs, and six more kicks were returned inside the 20. Add Torp's 22 punts inside the 20-yard-line and you realize 69 of 80 times, opponents began inside their 20 because of the kickoff and punt teams' efforts.

Torp, especially, can play a big role in close game where field position is vital, according to Barnett. Other times, it's Crosby leg that can determine a game's outcome.

"Some games you know that they are going to be struggles for your offense because of the quality of defense that you're playing, so you feel like Mason may end up being the difference in the game," Barnett says. "I think you're just able to handle more situations when you've got two weapons like that. When you don't have those weapons, then there's things that come up where you can't attack as well."

And Crosby and Torp's success begins with Holz and Pace. Pace, from Hinsdale, Ill., has been the team's snapper on field goals and point after attempts since 2002, when he became the first true freshman walk-on to play at Colorado in 16 years. He took over snap duties on punts last season, after being awarded a scholarship.

Greg Pace. (CU SID)

Holz came to CU from Danville, Calif., in 2002. He and Crosby began working together the next fall, but John Donahoe served as placeholder for Crosby in 2003. When Donahoe graduated after that season, Holz took over the job.

"A lot of people think it's a lot tougher than it is," Holz says. "I find it really easy. It just comes really natural to me. You just find your spot and let (Crosby) do the work. I can put it wherever, and he kicks it through."

Holz and Pace don't mind playing in the shadows of Crosby and Torp. In fact, they relish the chance to get onto the field and support the kickers.

"I'm real proud of them," Pace says. "(Crosby and Torp) work real hard. I'm really excited about this upcoming year. I think we're going to have a real good time and put a lot of points on the board."

Also in the September issue of the Buffalo Sports News:

• Q&A with CU offensive coordinator Shawn Watson about the upcoming season.

• Q&A with CU defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz about the upcoming season.

• Analysis of over 70 Colorado football players.

• An in-depth look at the NCAA's new Academic Progress policy and how it will affect sports programs across the country.

• Gary Danielson on College Football.

• BSN's Preseason Top 20 in-state high school football prospects

• Larry Zimmer's take on the 2005 Buffaloes

• Running with CU cross country NCAA champion hopeful Christine Bolf

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