A Newfound Confidence

At the tail end of Saturday's practice, the field goal unit trotted out with Brandon Walker lined up at kicker. The snap, the hold, the kick goes wide right. Not to worry, though, Walker's been making a lot more than he's been missing this spring.

"He's missed two kicks the whole spring," head coach Charlie Weis said. "That was one of the two."

Special teams coach Brian Polian estimated that so far this spring Brandon Walker has missed two kicks out of "probably two dozen."

Polian also said that, given the unfavorable weather this spring, it has been difficult to get practice time outside. All but one of Notre Dame's spring practices this has been year has been held inside the Loftus Sports Center, making it somewhat harder to gauge Walker's progress.

"I think we need to see ball flight and hang time and that sort of thing," Polian said. "And we lose that inside."

Walker, though, says that he can tell from how the ball feels off his foot whether or not he made a good kick. The Findlay, Ohio native is currently competing with junior Ryan Burkhart for the starting kicking duties. So far, neither has taken a decided advantage.

"It's nobody right now; it's both of them," Polian said. "They've gotten equal reps so far."

The competition isn't bothering Walker, who says that he and Burkhart are good friends, both on and off the field. The two have been working together in the offseason to improve one another's technique and, even though they're fighting for the same job, are always willing to help each other get better.

"We're not stabbing each other in the back," Walker said. "We always encourage each other, always say ‘Good hit,' or ‘Hey, good hit, but this is what you need to do.'"

Walker, however, wanted to make it clear that the stereotype that kickers are solitary creatures is completely untrue.

"We're not all that weird," he said. "We are normal people, we have feelings too.

"I'm friends with linebackers, I'm friends with quarterbacks, receivers. I mean, it's not like we have a poker night with just kickers."

Especially with kicking, though, it is important that position players stick together. With so many miniscule details to get right, fellow kickers are best at accurately assessing one another. Walker said that Burkhart has been crucial in his development, and vice versa.

"I can't watch where my plant foot is, and he can't watch where his is so we help each other out," Walker said. "We watch small technical stuff. If something doesn't feel right, we'll ask the other one to watch for us. It's been good for me and obviously it's been good for him."

As far as non-technical aspects go, Walker admitted that he needed to work on his confidence this offseason. In '07, he started off well, but struggled towards the end of the campaign. On the year, Walker made six of twelve field goals, but none longer than 30 yards.

"I wouldn't say my confidence was shot," Walker said of the end of the season. "But it wasn't as strong as it [used to be] and by doing that, I let the team down, and that can't happen at all."

One of the defining moments of Walker's, and Notre Dame's, season came against Navy. With the game tied and only 45 seconds remaining, Weis elected to go for the first down on 4th and 8 from the Navy 24, instead of kicking what would have been about a 40-yard field goal. Quarterback Evan Sharpley was sacked, and the Irish went on to lose to Navy for the first time in 43 years. Walker, though, wasn't concerned with his coach's decision.

"He has three Super Bowl rings," he said. "I mean, let's say we score a touchdown. What's the question then? We win. I'm not here to question coach Weis."

The kicker's confidence seems to have improved greatly over the offseason. After solving some technical issues, Walker met with coach Weis, along with the rest of the special teams, to discuss the importance of confidence as a football player. His strong offseason workouts haven't hurt either.

"Confidence comes with success," he said. "I can tell just by the ball jumping off my foot. If it's jumping real well, that would [give me] confidence, [or] little compliments by coach Weis, by coach Polian, or my teammates. Confidence from teammates, confidence from my coaches, that'll probably give me the most confidence."

Specifically, over the winter, Walker has been focusing on completing strength and conditioning coordinator Ruben Mendoza's weight lifting program. Since Christmas break, he has also been kicking regularly, and with increased frequency as spring practice approached. In the film room, Walker said regular meetings with Polian have helped him a great deal, and that most of the adjustments being made are minor.

"[I've been working on] just small technique stuff," he said. "Kicking's all about small, small things. Inches on the ground will be feet in the air."

The emphasis on the little things should help Walker come fall, as last season Walker did not have time after arriving in June to fine-tune his procedure.

"The difference between this year and last year is that we're really doing a lot of small technique drills," he said. "We take that on to the game field and that's really playing dividends."

Polian wasn't the only coach working with the special teams this offseason, though. Weis has made it a point to be more involved with all aspects of the team this year, including the special teams. Walker said the head coach has been present in meetings, making sure players are staying awake.

"[Weis]'s been in here, talked to the kickers personally," he said. "He's watching every kick, he's been real involved overall, and I think it's going to be a great success."

In addition to Weis, Walker has received help from NFL kicker Josh Houston, with whom he attended Findlay High School. Houston's father, Denny, was Walker's kicking coach in high school.

"I call him every once in a while if I have a technique issue and I just talk to him," Walker said of Houston. "Sometimes I kick with him in the offseason."

Unlike some kickers, who switch to the position later in their career or start off playing other sports, Walker has been kicking since he was in fifth grade and even then, he always knew he would put on the gold helmet one day.

"When I was in fifth grade, the high school coach said ‘Keep kicking and you'll end up at Notre Dame," he said.

He's here now, and look for a more confident Walker to make his mark with the Irish in '08.

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