Maybe that sounds like semantics to non-specialists. Kickers understand exactly what Graves means. Anxiety aids in preparation, where nerves cause a hitch in the swing. Based on Graves’ results so far his kicking only un-nerves the opposition.
Through four games sophomore specialist Graves is perfect on five field goal attempts and all 13 point-afters. In fact he’s the only SEC kicker with as many as five tries to have not missed anything. Not bad for a guy who did not find out until Friday before opening-night that he was the primary kicker on this club. This after a tight August competition with Devon Bell and Logan Cooke.
“I felt I had a good camp,” Graves said. “We all had a great camp. So it was going to be close, I knew. But I knew I was ready for it.” Ready, sure, yet…
“I was nervous first time out,” he admits. “Right before the game it was more anxious, and once the game started I was ready. It doesn’t go away but you feel better after that first kick and try to get in a groove.”
Graves was in a September groove for sure. He finished the month by booting a 44-yarder at Auburn that eased Mississippi State anxieties when the Tiger were trying to come back. If he was going to get nervous, that was the time, right?
“I knew we needed the points at that point in the game. I was prepared. I really wanted to help the team any way I could.” He did.
There was some surprise in press box and grandstands that Graves got sent out to kick for three at that range, and that point. Based on the 2014 season as well as the first three games this year, Coach Dan Mullen’s inclination inside a 30-yard with a makeable fourth down (State needed two yards that time) is to go for a first. Giving Graves a pressurized opportunity was a sign of changing times in State’s kicking game.
And, of faith in Graves.
“Distance-wise, I know Coach Mullen is not going to put me in a position he doesn’t think I can handle. I’m comfortable with anything he feels comfortable. If he’s going to put me out there, he thinks I can do it and that gives me the confidence I can do it.”
Everyone knows Mullen observes the pre-game kicking closely. So, once the routine ranges are taken care of, where will Graves spot his kicks?
“If I’m hitting the ball and feeling good I’ll go back probably about 50, 52, 53 yards, somewhere in there. I don’t like to go much farther than that because I know that’s not realistic. I don’t think I’d ever be put in a situation to hit past 50, I don’t know. But I want to be ready for it.”
Now. Everyone reading this just twitched at that ‘52’ figure. That’s how far the ball was spotted when State took a last-play shot at beating LSU. Though as all also recall, if not for losing track of time getting an offensive play called the kick should have been a 47-yarder.
Whether Mullen would have tapped Graves or Bell for the somewhat-shorter range will never be known, honestly. During the last drive both kickers were left to guess where the drive would stop and which of them would get the kick.
“We were moving the ball really well,” Graves said. “So I’m watching the scoreboard, not only the time but what yard line. It’s hard to see when I’m at the net, I count on that. I watch what yard the ball is on. I thought we were going to be within range, and then it happened real fast.”
As in the five yards lost for a delay penalty. Based on pre-game talk with the coach, “Once we got that penalty I kind of knew I probably wasn’t going to be asked to hit that,” said Graves. Bell had the range, as expected, but the ball sailed to the right and LSU escaped 21-19.
Bulldogs will re-hash that ending from now on. It’s instructive that those directly involved with the decision and results don’t waste their time second-guessing. Graves says his career-long kick was a 48-yarder in high school. “I think I hit it once or twice. Other than that, it was the 44 against Auburn.”
For what it is worth, which isn’t much in the real football world, all of Graves’ kicks this season have had plenty of distance. But then only kickers really understand what happens in their mind, and leg, when they know they have to hit it farther. So judging by how far his makes have cleared the posts is misguided.
It is, however, sign that range is increasing with age and time and experience. Oh, and confidence. So if such a situation ever arose again, Graves will be ready to hear the call. Or, not.
“If (Coach) asks me to do it, and I feel I’ve been hitting the ball well and the wind is at my back…there’s a lot of factors that can come into that. But if I feel like I can, I’m going to say yes. So if he asks me to, unless I just don’t think I can. Which hopefully doesn’t happen.”