USA Today // Bradley Leeb

Kicking and swinging

After 2014 struggles, Illini kickers Taylor Zalewski, David Reisner and Ryan Frain try to take mental lessons from the golf course

CHAMPAIGN - Anyone who has played a few rounds of golf probably has been mentally crushed by the game.

Attempting to strike a ball accurately -- with different clubs with different swings over undulating surfaces -- over 18 holes humbles even the best players in the world. Just ask Dustin Johnson. 

Golf is an absolute mental grind. But so is kicking, according to the experts.

“Easily 80 percent (of kicking is mental),” said Illini junior punter Ryan Frain, formerly a kicker as well. “Because there are so many people out there who can hit a 50-yard punt or a 50-yard field goal. But the guys who make it at this level are the guys who have the confidence and mental state of mind that, ‘I can get this thing done.’”

Golf and kicking both can quickly humble its challengers and teach them a thing or two about real mental strength.

The Illinois kickers are in need of a little mental boost after a confidence-deflating 2014 season. The Illini went 9-for-17 from on field goals and even missed four of 42 extra-point attempts. Illinois had two kickers each miss two extra points. For comparison's sake, 103 FBS individuals didn’t miss more than one extra point last season.

So while it may not have been planned, a summer on the golf course might have provided the mental weight lifting the Illini kickers needed to strengthen their fortitude.

Frain, senior Taylor Zalewski and junior David Reisner -- along with some other teammates, including tight end Tyler White -- golfed together “almost every other something fun to do” Frain said. But it also provided a bit of mental exercise.

“It’s the most similar sport there is to kicking,” Frain said. “The golf ball turns into a football; your leg turns into the club with golf. It’s no different. …It does help with this (kicking).”

Zalewski took more physical lessons from golf, picking up on the importance of precision in a golf swing -- similar to a leg swing on a kick.

“The mental side, I really don’t get from golf,” Zalewski said. “It’s more of the swing. When you’re swinging the golf club, you got to make sure the head is facing right. It’s kind of like your foot. It’s pretty much the exact same motion. I think after picking up golf it’s helped me kick more.”

Zalewski said he picked up golf about two years ago and usually notches an 18-hole score in the mid-90s.

“I think kicking would be more (difficult than golf),” Zalewski said. “Because you’re out there trying to perform for your team. With golfing, you’re only really letting yourself down. With kicking, I’m going to let down about 100 of my brothers.”

Reisner said he was the best golfer of the Illini summer bunch, averaging an 18-hole score in the low-80s. 

"I see a lot of similarities (to kicking), as far as your routine, your setup and everything," Reisner said. "You could push a ball in kicking, just like you can slice a ball in golf. It really comes down to doing the same thing every time as far as me taking my steps on kicking or my lineup and approach on taking a golf swing. Mentally, it's nice as a stress relief to get out there and enjoy a nice game of golfing with my friends. But also just like the mental aspect of it helps. Like with putts, taking a two-foot putt is the same thing as kicking (an extra point) essentially."

Illinois didn’t directly lose a game because of missing field goals last season. All of its six losses were by a margin of 10 or more points. But with the team hoping for even more close games this season, the Illini don’t want to test the odds of more cantankerous kicking in 2015.

Short memory

Zalewski began last season as the first-string kicker but quickly lost his job after going 0-for-2 in the second game of the season, a narrow victory over Western Kentucky. He made three of his final four attempts on the season but also missed two extra points.

“There was just a lot of negativity,” Zalewski said. “I missed my first two kicks, and that’s a terrible way to start. I start off 0-for-2, and that kind of started the thing for the season. If I go 2-for-2, it may have been different. It just hit hard and it hit quick and went downhill.”

Zalewski will have to shut out those bad memories if he is to succeed this season.

“I really let it bother me I think because I let my teammates down," Zalewski said. "It was just a bad situation last year. I just didn’t have the confidence I needed. I think this year it’s a whole different game. It’s going to be a whole lot better.”

After Zalewski’s early struggles, Reisner -- a Navy transfer -- took over. Reisner came up big in a 17-16 home victory over Penn State, hitting three of four attempts including the game-winning 36-yard field goal with 0:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. But he went 2-for-4 over the final two games and missed his second extra point of the season in a win at Northwestern.

The kicking was inconsistent during Camp Rantoul, but Zalewski self-reported an 84-percent conversion rate and even made a 58-yard attempt with a crosswind of more than 25 mph.

“Taylor’s a relentless guy,” Frain said. “I’ve been with him, this will be my fourth season, and he worked all offseason to correct what happened last year. We’ve been automatic, Taylor, Zach and I. There hasn’t been one miss that’s been, ‘Holy cow! What’s he thinking?!’ Every miss he’s had has been by a foot or so and he’s hitting the ball so well. He’s a learned a lot this offseason, and he’s confident -- which is the most important thing for him right now.”

If the season started today, Zalewski would likely get the first back swing. But Reisner continues to chase him on the leaderboard.

"Last year was my first year playing and everything, so it took me some adjusting, getting used to playing on a big stage," Reisner said. "I feel a lot more prepared this year. I'm a lot more experienced. I'm a senior in school now. I feel confident in every single practice, every single day. I'm trying to erase question marks in my head every single day."

While Frain won’t line up on extra points or field goals, he is feeling the pressure too. He replaces four-year starting punter Justin Duvernois.

The last three seasons, Duvernois ranked fourth (41.9 ypp in 2012), sixth (41.1 ypp in 2013) and third (44.0 ypp in 2014), respectively, among Big Ten punters in yards per punt. During that time, the Illini finished first, fourth and second in the Big Ten in net yards per punt. Simply, Duvernois was a huge weapon in the field position battle.

Frain has a big leg but has punted just once in his first two seasons (a 34-yarder vs. Youngstown State last season). Frain didn’t show Duvernois’ consistency during camp but said watching Duvernois should help him transition to the No. 1 spot this season.

“I learned so many things from Justin,” Frain said. “The No. 1 thing I’d have to say is how he reset every punt. Whether it was a good or a bad ball, he reset -- especially as a senior. He didn’t care what his last ball looked like. After every single ball, he reset. He wasn’t afraid to shank one. He wasn’t afraid of what everyone thought. The No. 1 thing I learned from him is how short of a memory he had.”

New guidance

Illinois special teams coordinator Alex Golesh, who takes over the role after the Illini parted ways with former special teams coach Tim Salem, is a believer in the golf-to-kicking comparison.

In fact, Golesh met with revered Illini golf coach Mike Small to discuss what he looks for in a golfer during his recruitment. Small’s answer focused more on the golfer’s mentality than his physical traits.

“His answer is exactly what I thought the whole time,” Golesh said. “He said, ‘I’m watching that kid for 18 holes for four days, see how he interacts with his teammates, see how he interacts with his pro.’ I want the same thing.

“I want guys that with eight seconds left in a Big Ten game for the chance to go to a bowl game, a guy that has the confidence and whose teammates have the confidence in him to make it.”

Based on last season’s sample size, the Illini don’t have that yet -- which is why the staff extended a scholarship offer to Oklahoma prep prospect Braxton Pickard.

But Golesh is trying his best to reinforce some confidence in his shaky specialists.

"There was a lot of uncertainty last year with us, as far as people's opinons about us and who was kicking (each game)" Reisner said. "This year, we kind of just block that out and it's helped us."

Both Zalewski and Frain enjoy Golesh’s more hands-off approach. Golesh usually gives the speciailsts pointers before practice and lets them work on their own. Zalewski said he’s cut his kicking reps from more than 100 leg-to-ball contact kicks a day under Salem to about 30-40 contact kicks per practice now.

“We’ve relaxed a lot,” Frain said. “Salem was kind of an energizer bunny type. We’d do conditioning during individual drills. Now, it’s a lot more that we’re going to watch our reps. We’re going to make them quality reps. We’re going to do a lot of drills, a lot of things we can do without actually making contact with the football.”

Former pro golfer Raymond Floyd once said, "They call it golf because all the other four-letter words were taken."

The Illini kicking game forced the staff and fans to mutter a few choice four-letter words last season. They're hoping the Illini kickers worked out some mental kinks on the golf course this summer -- because the team likely can't afford a repeat of 2014's performance.

“From last year, the difference is just the confidence, the whole mental side of the game," Zalewski said. "You go out there, you miss a kick, you don’t let it bother you. You make a kick, who cares? You got to make the next one.”

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