Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Veteran Specialist Says 50-55 Yards is Within His Range

Short or long. First or fourth quarters. Routine or crunch time. They’re all the same, Westin Graves claims. “Every kick is very high-stress, I mean very high pressure.”

Put that way, it means Graves isn’t feeling any more than the normal preseason pressures as he defends his place as starting placekicker. The junior doesn’t take this job for granted, exactly.

But he doesn’t go to the practice field fretting the daily competition either. It’s all…normal.

“It’s going well. We’re just practicing small things, getting ready for the season.”

The ‘we’ are a trio of Mississippi State specialists. Two of them are newcomers in Jace Christman and Brad Walls, who are also kicking field goals in preseason. Graves is the veteran, the only Bulldog attempting a 2015 three- or one-pointer back for this season.

This obviously gives Graves a, pun alert, leg-up on the rest. He’s still assuming nothing.

“They’re great kickers so they’re going to be pushing me and I’m going to be pushing them. They’re young so any way I can help them I’m trying to get their confidence. Let them know I was a freshman, so they can get better and push me farther.”

Ahhh, yeah. Farther. The placekicking topic of most obvious 2016 interest.

Bulldog fans recall last season’s concerns with Mississippi State’s field goal range. Or lack thereof. To be fair, Coach Dan Mullen made clear early and often he considered the 25-yard line as the more-or-less limit. Which meant limiting kickers to 42-yard attempts.

The coach mostly stuck by his September stance. Mostly. There were exceptions, obviously the 52-yard try which went wide and short letting LSU escape Scott Field. That one of course was forced by clock miss-management and a penalty to boot. Again no pun intended.

There also was a 50-yarder against Alabama also went short. Graves didn’t try that one. Otherwise, though, he was 15-of-16 on all other kicks including a 44-yarder at Auburn. The miss was from 26 and while it didn’t impact a win it still reminded that no kick, none of ‘em, is ever really routine.

But the long balls get the attention. Graves has given his to improving range in ’16 and says he’s fine at 50, even 55 yards now.

“If I hit the ball well, I don’t know that I’d set a minimum or maximum. Honestly if it’s a long ball I’m going to look and see where it’s at but I’m not going to think about that. OK, this is where I’m at, I’ve got to see how far I am kind to know what angle I need to take. But other than that, I don’t want to think too much because that’s when you get it in your head.”

No, the goal is just getting it off the foot and in the right direction. Distance should take care of itself from there if Graves does everything else right, right?

“And Coach B and Coach Mullen are pushing me to keep getting comfortable with that, so if we need it in the season.”

Coach B is Chris Boniol, the staffer hired to improve State’s specializing. A NFL kicker himself, Boniol scripts the daily drills. Which this preseason includes more of the long balls, Graves said, as well as a lot more working into the wind at that moment.

“Which is good, and I’ve got a lot more comfortable hitting longer balls.” Graves has also focused on fine-tuning a few techniques, which he’d have done anyway on his own because the kid is an admitted perfectionist. Even a made-three that isn’t down-the-middle bugs Graves.

Having expert advice is still welcome. Yet Graves explained, Boniol is not bringing anything radical to 2016 instruction. “Certain things he can and can’t help us with, but he can break down our film and ‘this is what I did’. And I’ve got some questions as far as routines.

“He’s not trying to change anything really, but any questions or pointers he’s always there. And I trust everything he says. You’re fine. It’s a bad day, scratch it. Or it’s a good day, scratch it. It’s another day.”

Now, for just about any other position player a summer regimen is pretty straight-forward. They’re on campus already, so it’s attend morning classes, lunch, take care of weight and conditioning work before doing informal drills with position peers.

Graves? His situation was a bit more complicated, for good career reasons.

“I interned in Jackson,” he said, “with Ergon. It was great, working with asphalt and doing some stuff for Mississippi State too.”

But it made a hectic week for this civil engineering major. Though, fortunately, his office is right by Jackson Prep, so he could cross Lakeland Drive and work out on Monday afternoons. Following Tuesday on the job he’d leave for Starkville, go to his Wednesday morning class; report to Seal Complex for workouts and kicking. “Then leave back for Jackson around 8:00 or 9:00.” Thursdays, it was more kicking at Prep. Sometimes he’d return to campus for weekends, sometimes not.

“I didn’t do all that much here but I needed to try to get some work experience. Because graduating next Christmas is what I’m hoping. I was kind of worried about my hours, if I do this it’s got to be this summer so I can make sure any classes I can take next summer.”

Graduation is a long time off. The junior season, that’s almost here. With a full season to his credit Graves goes into 2016 with real confidence. “Now I’ve done it, I know what I can do.” Including, he adds, accepting the challenges of 50 or more yards. “Oh, I’d be ready to go. Coach Mullen isn’t going to put me in a situation where he thinks I could fail.”

“So if he’s telling me to go out? Let’s go. I’m ready to kick it.”

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