Three Battle for Kicking Duties

During practice Notre Dame kickers go about their business, working on fundamentals, doing their own thing in their own world, when all of sudden practice stops and they are the center of attention. Trying to emulate a pressure situation, a kicker is asked to nail a field goal in front of the whole team with a rush coming at them.

Of course there is taunting before the ball is snapped, mainly from Tom Zbikowski.

"Zibby is on the other side of the line yelling at them, which is fine," special teams coach Brian Polian said after practice, Friday. "He has to deal with distractions, it's either going to be Zibby or 60,000 people in Atlanta on Sept. 2."

The he in practice is either seniors Carl Gioia or Bobby Renkes, or new addition, sophomore walk-on Pablo Nava. The he in Atlanta is to be determined, though Gioia appears to be the early leader. Incoming freshman Ryan Burkhart and his big leg will get a chance to have his say on the competition before it's all said and done.

D.J. Fitzpatrick, who held down the fort for three seasons at kicker, is gone. Gioia is the most experienced returnee, and the only one that has place-kicked in a game. Renkes didn't appear in a game last season. He did handle kickoff duties for six games as a sophomore. Obviously one guy could handle kickoff duties while another place-kicks. It's an open competition at every spot.

"The evaluation of the specialists is going to be off the body of work, not just off one scrimmage, not just off one practice," Polian said.

Gioia has appeared in 10 games during his career, five last year and five as a sophomore. He handled most of the kick-off duties as a sophomore before Renkes replaced him. Last year, Gioia kicked two PATs and a 29-yard field goal against Stanford. He has gotten back to basics to prepare for the upcoming season.

"Fundamentals, just like every other position, has been worked on, just getting back to getting a good foot on the ball and following straight through to the target," he said.

Fitzpatrick made 11-of-17 field goal attempts last season including four-of-six on kicks of 40 yards or more. He had the team's trust. Gioia is trying to earn the same thing this spring.
"Just trying to build confidence in myself, trying to get the team's confidence behind me," Gioia said. "Losing D.J. is obviously a big hole to fill so as long as I can get some confidence from the coaches and the rest of the team to go out there and do the job, I'll consider it a pretty good spring."

The unexpected kicking situations in practice are a nice emulation, but Gioia has tasted the real thing. He kicked off at Michigan last season, and connected on that 29-yarder against Stanford to give the Irish a 23-14 fourth quarter lead.

"Any experience, especially at that position, helps because you can't recreate. He goes up to Stanford, he makes a field goal, and he makes a PAT at Stanford," Polian explained. "He kicked off at Michigan so now the kid has been out there and performed. In the Michigan case, he kicked off in front of 111,000 people on national TV. As much as we'd like to, we can't recreate that pressure in a practice situation. We can create a pressure situation but you can't recreate that. There is a little bit of an advantage there for a guy that's done it. Now that being said, it's still a competition now. Renkes has been putting the heat on Gioia."

"We are definitely having good competition," Renkes said. We'll know how things are going the next couple of practices. I think I've been kicking well and competing, and I think Carl would say the exact same thing."

Polian is hoping to get outside over the next couple of weeks. The kickers haven't been able to work on every facet of the game. They've been able to work on technique and field goals, but drilling the ball on a kickoff would hit the roof of the Loftus Center. The guys can tell if they caught the ball well by the rotation before it hit's the roof but distance is impossible to gauge.

"It's real frustrating and there is nothing anybody can do about it," Polian said. "When you have a situation where you are having to replace D.J., and you are working inside, and now we are almost six-seven practices in, and we haven't been outside yet, that's hard.

"It's just one of those things you have to deal with. We are in South Bend, Indiana, not Orlando, Florida so you have to deal with it. There are probably 20 other schools in climates just like this that are having to deal with the same thing.

"I think with Bobby and Pablo Nava, also the next two weeks we get outside is going to be important to them. They've done a nice job as we begin to get into some scrimmage situations, as we move further into spring practice they will get their opportunities. When you're a second or third guy, where you are a guy that doesn't have game experience, when you get an opportunity in a scrimmage you've got to take advantage of it. I'm looking forward to seeing those guys in those scenarios."

Until then, the kickers will have to deal with good-natured ribbing from Zbikowski. He gets pretty clever especially when Jeff Samardzija, Gioia's high school teammate from Valparaiso, Ind. is holding for him.

"He always talks about the Valpo boys, a nice little connection there," Gioia laughed. "He talks about the Penn Kingsmen (big high school rival), things like that to get on our nerves, it's pretty funny."

Gioia wasn't nervous for his few opportunities to kick last season. Even if he was, Samardzija was there to right the ship.

"Going out there at Syracuse last year with the first PAT that I kicked, and he was out there the last game of the season (Stanford), bloods flowing really quickly and he just out there and says ‘Hey, what's up,'" Gioia remembered.

Gioia got pretty light during his session with the media Friday about his and Samardzija's long friendship. "We joke because he is only one day older than me, but evidently that 24 hours makes up for 100s of 1,000s of points of athletic ability."

If Gioia's kicking game is as good as his jokes, he'll have no problem winning the kicking duties.

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