Irish Eyes continues its Pre-Camp Unit rankings with a look at our No. 9 group, the field goal unit.
Note: These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.
Field Goal Unit:
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 9 behind the team's WR, DB, Kick/Punt Coverage teams, QB, RB, LB, TE, and Kick/Punt Return teams.
Place-kicker: Junior Brandon Walker
2008 By the Numbers: Walker finished 14-24 on field goal attempts, beginning 1-7 (SD State through Stanford) and finishing 13-17 (UNC through USC). Walker hit 6 of 8 attempts from inside 35 yards; 7 of 10 between 36-45 yards; and finished 1 of 6 from 46 yards and beyond. Hit connected on each of his 39 PAT.
Rookie Challenger: Freshman Nicholas Tausch
Veteran Backup: Junior Ryan Burkhart (the team's kick-off specialist)
Graduated Long-Snapper: Walk-on Kevin Brooks.
Long-Snapper Candidates: Freshman (Scholarship) Jordan Cowart; sophomore center Braxton Cave; sophomore guard Mike Golic, Jr.
Emergency Snapper: Sophomore linebacker Darius Fleming.
Current Holder: Junior punter Eric Maust
Highest Realistic Team Ranking for the Unit at Season's End: No. 7 (ahead of the tight ends if Kyle Rudolph misses time due to injury, and ahead of the inconsistent Kick/Punt Return teams, but realistically behind the team's established WR, DB, and Kick/Punt Coverage units, and the promising QB, RB, and LB groups).
Lowest Team Ranking (of the 11 Units) I Can Fathom at Season's End: No. 11, which, you could argue, would apply to 2008.
Strengths: Walker hit 13 of his final 17 kicks, including seven straight (from 42, 28, 42, 39, 22, 26, and 48 yards). He drilled three kicks in three overtimes vs. Pittsburgh:
- The first from 22 yards to tie the score at 27 and force a second OT.
- The second from 26 yards, a kick that gave the Irish a 30-27 lead before the Panthers tied the score on the ensuing possession.
- The third, a career-best 48-yard boot to keep the Irish alive and send the contest into a 3rd overtime.
Weaknesses: Walker missed 10 kicks, including four that had an impact on three Irish losses: the first, a crucial 41-yard attempt at Michigan State that would have cut the Spartans lead to 16-10 with 5:50 remaining. In Walker's defense, the miss at MSU was influenced by a terrible (high) snap. Then, a missed 38-yard attempt in the 4th overtime vs. Pittsburgh (after he had saved the Irish three times prior).
Against Syracuse, Walker missed two long kicks in the final five minutes, the first a 49-yard attempt that fell short (a made field goal would have provided the Irish a 26-17 lead in the eventual 24-23 loss) with 4:58 remaining; the second, a 54-yard prayer at the gun that also fell (predictably) short. In this instance, Walker was somewhere around No. 50 on the list of players/coaches that determined the loss to the Orange.
Confidence appeared to be an issue early in the season when Walker missed six of his first seven field goals attempts and 11 of his last 14 dating back to Game 7 of 2007.
Two "automatic" aspects of the unit had issues as well. Holder Eric Maust failed to secure a (wide) snap vs. SD State (no kick attempted), and LS Kevin Brooks produced at least three poor snaps: the SD State effort above; the extremely high snap in the crucial 41-yard miss at MSU; and the ground ball in the failed 26-yard attempt vs. Syracuse. Maust, it should be noted, placed one fantastic catch-and-hold of a poor (inside) snap vs. Syracuse earlier in the contest, his second save of the season.
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: The Irish have three candidates to relieve Maust as a holder: quarterbacks Evan Sharpley and Dayne Crist, and wide receiver/emergency QB John Goodman (Crist and Goodman were redshirted last season – holding for field goals/PAT would have burned a year of eligibility). Each brings more athleticism to the role, lending the possibility of an occasional fake field goal, and, more importantly, not completely dooming the play as a result of a poor snap.
The Irish will break-in a new long-snapper this season, and head coach Charlie Weis has made no secret that he hopes freshman LS recruit Jordan Cowart can enter fall camp and win the job for the next four seasons. All that is asked of Cowart is that he never produce a poor snap in a close game until he graduates from the University in 2013…the on-field existence of a long-snapper can be cruel as well.
It's reasonable to believe that Walker, who connected on 12-14 at one point, and has offered the observation that he corrected a flaw in his form midway through last season, will be a dependable kicker in 2009. The Irish don't need him to produce 50-yard cannon shots, but merely to be reliable from 36-45 yards, to drill the occasional deep kick (a key to field position and momentum shifts) and rarely miss a chip shot inside 35 yards.
The goal for Cowart and the Irish holder is to simply make it through 13 games without notice. No poor snaps. No botched holds. Its much easier said than done, but it is nonetheless a requirement of the position. Brandon Walker doesn't have that luxury. He'll either improve or endure weekly auditions for his job. He'll either "win" a game or two, or be criticized for a crucial miss in a loss. Kickers don't win or lose football games…but they can certainly help determine the outcome.
Look for a solid year from Walker, the type in which hitting four consecutive mid-range field goals is more common than missing two straight.