Penn State’s Ficken Leads by Example

The Nittany Lion kicker overcame on-field struggles to become one of the nation’s best. He doesn’t mind sharing his story with teammates.

Sam Ficken has become a great college kicker. The odds of that happening appeared long two years ago, on a sultry Saturday afternoon in Charlottesville, Va.

But more than that, the senior has become a leader, and a beacon for a Penn State team trying to find its way. Who on the roster knows more about hacking through life's rough patches than Ficken? Who knows more about rising up when circumstances have laid one low?

“I can't say it enough, what a great example he is for all of us, including myself,” coach James Franklin said on Tuesday, as he looked ahead to Saturday's game at Indiana, which offers his 4-4 team an opportunity to snap a four-game losing streak.

His teammates likewise seem to recognize what Ficken stands for, and what he has accomplished.

“Sam's a guy,” safety Jesse Della Valle said, “that everyone on the team really looks up to.”

If he was once the subject of Internet scorn, if he once drew derisive cheers when he so much as managed to kick an extra point, that has all changed.

“Right now, Ficken can run for mayor of State College,” Franklin said.

It's not just because he is 17-for-19 on field goals this year, having equaled his career high by making all four of his attempts in last Saturday's 20-19 loss to Maryland. He had a season-long 48-yarder among them, and two other kicks of 45 yards or longer, making him the first PSU kicker since 1982 to make three from that distance or longer in a single game.

That earned him Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. He was also designated after going 4-for-4 and nailing the game-winner against UCF in the opener.

But it had nothing to do with any of that, either. It is more about the journey, the one that began that horrid day at Virginia, when he missed four field goals, one at the gun, in a one-point loss to the Cavaliers. He also had a PAT blocked.

That he has made it from those depths to the summit he now occupies is an inspiration for everyone else on the roster.

“It's just kind of being able to communicate my personal story to every situation,” he said. “Everyone goes through tough times, not just punters and kickers. Everyone kind of has games where they go, 'I wish I could have played better; my confidence isn't where it needs to be.' That's something I think I've done a good job of being able to relate, especially to the younger guys that haven't really been here for my whole college experience.”

He has a particular connection to punters Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello. Their current struggles, he said, are “something I can relate to.”

“And,” he added, “I told them there was really one way to get through that. That was keep a positive attitude and work your butt off.”

“It’s just kind of being able to communicate my personal story to every situation. Everyone goes through tough times, not just punters and kickers.”

They have been helped by the same man who once came to Ficken's aid -- Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould, the former Penn Stater. With the Bears on a bye last week, Gould came to State College to review film with the punters, watch them practice and give them pointers.

“He knows they have all the ability in the world,” Ficken said. “It's just a matter of translating it over to games.”

Gould was among those who staged an intervention after Ficken's disastrous day in Charlottesville, and he who fine-tuned Ficken's technique and built up his confidence.

“He's a big part of where I'm at right now,” Ficken said.

Gould, who has developed into one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, was having none of that when he was reached the day after the UCF game.

“The kid's worked harder, I think, than anybody I've ever met in college,” he said of Ficken. “Sam's done a lot on his own. It's not just me.”

Ficken made his last 10 field-goal attempts in 2012, and his first five in '13. He sagged when his regular holder, Ryan Keiser, was injured last fall -- “I kind of lost confidence in the whole unit a little bit,” he said, “and I take the blame for that completely” -- but there has not been a repeat this season, even though Keiser has missed the last two games with a broken rib.

That's because Ficken worked with different holders in spring practice and preseason drills, and as a result has complete faith in Gulla, Keiser's fill-in. Ficken has made all five of his attempts over the last two games, and nine straight in all, and in his words is “obviously kicking with a lot of confidence.”

“And,” he added, “I have confidence in my leg up to 57, 58.”

Now Ficken, a native of Valparaiso, Ind., faces a game in his home state. His parents both graduated from Indiana, and several friends and family members will be on hand Saturday.

“Every time you go to your home state,” he said, “you want to come out with a victory.”

Especially given the Lions' current circumstances. While everyone is understandably frustrated, he said, “We're right there. We're so close to being 7-1. It's just a matter of executing a few more plays a game. … We need to get back on track here, and I expect us to do that.”

Of course he does. For if there's anyone who can see the forest for the trees, it's him.

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