Most Irish fans have trouble remembering a merely competent Notre Dame kicker. Excellence, both consistent (Craigh Hentrich) and timely (Reggie Ho), is celebrated while crunch-time failure is relived, often lamented for years and even decades by fans that fail to remember a particular game's remaining 60-75 snaps.
If Brandon Walker can navigate the upcoming 12-game slate relatively unnoticed by Irish fans, there's a good chance the junior place-kicker fulfilled the requirements of his position. It's not that kickers seek anonymity; rather that the alternative offers more sleepless nights, an endless string of post-game questions with obvious answers ("How did you feel after the miss?"), and most importantly, the inescapable feeling that one missed kick cost his team a game.
Walker played no bigger role in Notre Dame's uneven season than any member of the leaky offensive or defensive line; any linebacker that ran around block; any running back that fell upon first contact, or than that of the team's signal-caller that flashed both All-American and head-shaking moments over the 13-game stretch. And like each of his teammates, Walker must improve in 2009 or he'll be replaced – and a kicker's failures are a bit more objective to the casual observer than those of most of his teammates.
Walker suffered through an almost impossibly bad stretch from mid-2007 (Week Seven vs. BC) through September 2008 (Week Five vs. Stanford), missing 11 of 14 field goal attempts (add an ill-advised fake on 4th and 15 vs. Navy in November '07 and a botched hold in the '08 opener vs. San Diego State and the Irish field goal unit had, at one point, failed to execute in 13 of 16 trips onto the playing field).
Walker, who maintained these misses were not a crisis of confidence, but rather a (eventually fixed) flaw in his mechanics, inexplicably drilled 11 of his next 12 attempts, including a clutch 48-yarder in the third overtime against Pittsburgh.
After missing 10 of his first 12 career field goals from 40-yards or farther, Walker connected on five of his next seven from that distance with the only misses occurring vs. Syracuse in the fourth quarter into the wind.
The kicker that found no early-season success finished 2008 with 13 successful kicks in his final 17 attempts.
Walker's Season Outlook:Walker will receive a challenge from freshman kicker Nicholas Tausch in August. He'll also work with a new long-snapper (likely freshman Jordan Cowart) after the graduation of Kevin Brooks. Punter Eric Maust returns to hold, but the Irish will certainly audition for that spot as well.
Though kickers are creatures of habit, a change in the Irish field goal machine can't hurt, as too many snaps and holds were executed poorly last season – occurrences that applied extra strain to an already shaky kicking situation.In 2008, Walker (who was perfect on 39 extra point attempts) hit 6 of 8 attempts from inside 35 yards and drilled 7 of 10 between 36-45 yards out. However, the sophomore connected on just 1 of 6 attempts from 46 yards or farther, misses that put the Irish defense in a battle to retake decent field position. He'll either improve from that distance or head coach Charlie Weis and the Irish offense will once again rank among the leaders of the college football world in fourth-down conversion attempts in 2009.
- The Irish eschewed a punt and/or field goal on 30 occasions last season (they converted 11), the fourth highest national total behind New Mexico State (37), Kansas State (35), and Eastern Michigan (33) – teams that finished with an aggregate 11 wins and 25 losses in '08.
Second to Walker's personal confidence is that of Coach Weis in the kicker's ability to connect within a 50-yard range. While the Irish coaching staff, Walker's teammates, and ND fans nationwide would likely settle for a modicum of consistency (a series of "40-degree days") from the kicker over what should be a 13-game season, Walker should nonetheless list that as merely his first attainable goal. Because the emergence of Brandon Walker – the weapon – would help the Irish offense to reach its highest scoring average (36.7) since the 2005 season.
The Field Goal Unit: Kick-by-Kick in 2008:
- San Diego State: Missed (wide right) from 47; a second field goal foray was botched due to a dropped hold (occurring on what was a decent, but not "good" snap). The end-result was no attempt from the 25-yard line.
- Michigan: No Attempts
- Michigan State: Missed (wide right) from 51 yards – after Coach Weis elected to send out the field goal unit following an MSU timeout; Missed (wide left) from 41 yards – an extremely high snap (good hold).
- Purdue: Missed (wide left) from 31; Made Field Goal from 41 yards to give the Irish a 38-21 advantage with 10:26 remaining.
- Stanford: Missed (wide right) from 41; Missed (wide right) from 46.
- North Carolina: Made Field Goal from 42 yards to give the Irish a 10-6 lead in the 2nd Quarter.
- Washington: Made Field Goal from 28 yards (17-0 ND); Made Field Goal from 42 yards (27-0 ND).
- Pittsburgh: Made Field Goal from 39 yards (3-0 ND); Made Field Goal from 22 yards to tie the score at 27 and force a second OT; Made Field Goal from 26 yards, a kick that gave the Irish a 30-27 lead before the Panthers tied the score on the ensuing possession; Made Field Goal from 48 yards to keep the Irish alive and send the game into a fourth overtime; Missed Field Goal (wide left) from 38 yards.
- Boston College: No Attempts
- Navy: Made Field Goal from 28 yards to end the first half (ND 10 Navy 7); Made Field Goal from 36 yards (ND 27 Navy 7 with 11:17 remaining).
- Syracuse: Made Field Goal from 34 yards (3-0 ND); Made Field Goal from 46 yards with 2:19 remaining in the first half (10-6 Syracuse); Missed Field Goal (wide left) from 26 yards – terrible snap and a worse hold. Walker's only culpability was attempting to kick the ball lying flat on the ground (13-10 ND with 8:39 remaining in the third quarter); Made Field Goal from 23 yards (23-10 ND with 1:34 remaining in the third quarter); Missed Field goal (short) from 49 yards with 4:58 remaining (ND 23 Syracuse 17); Missed Field goal (short) from 53 yards as time expired (Syracuse 24 ND 23).
- USC: Made Field Goal from 41 yards midway through the third quarter.
- Hawaii: No Attempts (7-7 PAT).