Kicking a Mental Game

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen is pulling out all the stops in an effort to get his kicking team prepared for the upcoming season. More from Terp Sports Report's Jeff Ermann inside.

Ralph Friedgen’s office is dotted with the trappings of a decorated college football coach. One an end table beside his red leather chair sits the Frank Broyles trophy, awarded to him as the top assistant coach in college football seven years ago at Georgia Tech. The walls are flecked with framed awards and photos and plaques, while on his coffee table rests the room’s showpiece– the 2001 national coach of the year trophy.

And on his shelf, he has a jar with his kicker’s brain in it. Or so he says.

That’s the metaphor, twisted yet accurate, Friedgen uses to label the endless mental games he employs to try and condition the psyches of his field-goal kickers. Others on the team simply call it mouthing off. Either way, it’s a sight to behold: Friedgen, the former offensive lineman know as 'The Fridge' lording over 5-foot-10, 158-pound  kicker Dan Ennis, bellowing in no uncertain terms why he cannot and will not make this field goal.

While sophomore Obi Egekeze seems emotionally detached while the coach rattles his helmet with taunts, the verbal hazing finally seems to be achieving the desired effect in senior Ennis, the first-string kicker as of right now.

“He takes offense to what Friedgen says,” said punter Adam Podlesh, easily the most reliable facet of Maryland’s kicking game. “He’s kind of like, ‘I wanna show him up.’”

Friedgen’s torrent of heckling, which usually comes at the end of practice during what is called ‘Operation Drill' – one field-goal try for each five-yard span out to the 30-yard-line – produced a brief but amusing exchange a few days ago.

“You don’t have my brain yet,” Ennis said defiantly.

“I will,” Friedgen whipped back.

“What I’m really trying to do," he explained, "is distract them to try and break their concentration, get them to focus more on making the kick and forget everything else.

“You know,” he said, “set the mechanism.”

Ennis, a soccer player who didn’t convert to football until he got to college, appeared to be a fine-tuned machine early last season, drilling his first 11 field-goal tries. But he missed eight of his final 14 and his confidence dissolved as the season wore on.

“I, for some reason or the other, didn’t miss in the beginning and just had confidence in the beginning,” Ennis said earlier this week after practice. “After you miss a few, you kind of have to bounce back, so it’s harder to stay focused and stay confident.”

“I think it’s ninety percent mental,” special teams coach Ray Rychleski said. “I think they nerve up a little bit. I think Ennis is maybe a little bit farther along with that, maybe because he’s a senior.”

To pile more pressure during the drill and impart the stress of a game-deciding attamept, Friedgen mandates sprints for every missed field goal – for the entire team. One day last week, the entire team took a knee and linked hands on the sideline.

“Ray and Friedgen, they’re trying to get a guy who’s going to be a pressure cooker guy that really doesn’t fold under pressure,” said Podlesh, who is also the placeholder.

Egekeze came to Maryland from Atlanta in 2004 as a touted recruit who’d also been wooed by the likes of Ohio State, Georgia and Texas. Also a late convert from soccer, he has a booming leg but has not honed his accuracy as the coaching staff had hoped he would.

“I would like to see Obi start kicking, you know, I’ve got a scholarship invested in him and it’s not that he doesn’t have the ability. I think he has a little more leg than Dan does,” Friedgen said.

“But right now I’m hoping we can get one guy that can come on and be consistent. I don’t like extra points being exciting.”

Egekeze has been kicking very well the past several days of practice, though, and is beginning to push Ennis for the starting job. The scrimmage this Saturday could go a long way in determining who wins the job.

“I’m kicking the ball OK. I could still do a whole lot better,” Egekeze said.

The two players seemed destined to be compared; In addition to battling for the position, they sit next to each other in the press guide and live together. Both said they leave the competition on the field, and that it doesn’t lead to awkward circumstances.

“You never hope for the bad for someone else, so you just have to hope you do the best for yourself,” said Ennis, a native of Sykesville, Md., who can actually bench press nearly twice his body weight.

With most of the depth chart solidified, kicker remains the most prominent area of concern for Friedgen and Rychleski.

 “I’m just OK with the situation right now. I’m a little bit worried,” Rychleski admitted Tuesday after practice. “They’re what we got; we can’t go to the waiver wire.”

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