Irish Kicking Sweepstakes

Nate Whitaker always wanted to play Division I soccer. The San Diego product didn't think about playing Division I football until his senior year of high school. The kicking job was open at Saint Augustine High, and with no leading candidates, Whitaker figured he'd step up and try it in his final season.

About the only kicking experience Whitaker had dated back to grade school and his father made him boot a few footballs.

"I actually started off as a freshman receiver," Whitaker said.

The former receiver ended up making 8-of-14 field goals with a long of 44 yards, and was good on 38-of-41 extra points. Whitaker also kicked 26 touchbacks and started drawing some interest from small schools. He had bigger plans and started sending tapes out to major programs. One of them was Notre Dame.

"I heard from them a little bit after mid-year that if I got in that I could play for the Irish," the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Whitaker said.

When Whitaker got his acceptance letter from the University, it was an easy decision. His mother and grandfather were both students at Notre Dame, and he grew up an Irish fan, so walking onto the football team was a dream come true. Whitaker was also hoping to walk on the soccer team before realizing they were the same season, unlike at home.

"I couldn't pass up on a school like Notre Dame education wise," he said. "On top of that, when I found out I could get on the football team, saying no wasn't an option."

Whitaker competed with the graduated Carl Gioia and Ryan Burkhart for time last season, and had one kickoff that went 50 yards. He is in a position for much more this season.

Similar to Saint Augustine back in Whitaker's senior season, and similar to Notre Dame's quarterback derby this fall, there are no leading candidates to be the starting kicker at Notre Dame. Whitaker, the sophomore Burkhart and freshman Brandon Walker are involved in a competition where nobody has moved far enough ahead of the other in all facets, kicking off and place kicking, to name a starter. Both Burkhart and Walker are on scholarship.

"Nate has probably been our most consistent guy, both the other two guys and obviously Brandon Walker being new to us who we are figuring out, and Ryan on different days, has been right there," head coach Charlie Weis explained after Saturday's open practice.

Just like at quarterback or every other position for that matter, Weis is looking for consistency in making field goals, and a guy that can give the kickoff coverage a chance to make a play. Obviously he would prefer touchbacks. All three kickers have had their good days and bad days this fall camp.

"That's all I'm working on right now is just trying to improve myself from last year and striking that sweet spot on the ball every time," Burkhart said. He handled the kickoff job for most of the season last year, booting eight touchbacks, but he has yet to kick a field goal in a game.

"All kickers want to be consistent, and I'm always working to be as consistent as possible," Whitaker said. "Everyday I want to improve, but right now I'm looking to be as consistent as possible and hit the ball strong."

Weis mentioned that Walker had been doing the best as far as kickoffs are concerned when meeting with the press on Saturday.

With the Jekyll and Hyde performances by all three in practice, there is obvious reason for concern heading into the season. Maybe the misses come from pressure of knowing there is a competition, but that pressure will be nothing compared to attempting a field goal at Penn State of Michigan in the coming weeks.

"I try to avoid that and keep a level head as much as possible," Whitaker said of the competition.

"You only get so many kicks in practice so you have to make the ones that count," Burkhart said. "It's just like a game situation. Say you get four kicks in practice, you could have four kicks in a game, so you have to make every kick count. You just worry about yourself, you don't care what other people are doing."

***Both Whitaker and Burkhart commented on the NCAA moving the kickoff point from the 35-yard line to the 30.

"Just like a deep field goal, your first reaction is to strike it as hard as you can," Burkhart said. "If you do that, you're just going to throw your stuff out of whack. You just have to have consistent thoughts in your mind and focus on the key points."

"I say just kick it the same as you kicked it from the 35, it's only five yards," Whitaker said. "I prefer getting more hang time. That's one thing I worked on over the summer, getting it up there and hanging it up so it's not as likely to go into the end zone when you want. You want as much hang time as possible and let your coverage team get down there."


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