"Just For Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills

As we all prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally for Saturday's epic battle with Troy, The Bootleg's Aaron Mills reviews last week's special teams performance at Autzen Stadium and shares some of his personal experience with patience, persistence, and perseverance.

"Just For Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills

Stanford 31, Oregon....more. Unfortunately, I must say that this particular game was reminiscent of when I was playing on The Farm and we let a 17-0 game slip away to Arizona on the road in 1993 (27-24). It just left me scratching my head and thinking, after such a terrific start, how did this happen? Likewise, the Oregon game last Saturday was confusing in that the momentum of the game suddenly turned and never switched back to our side.

Well, let's all agree that the Quack Attack is for real this year and we weren't able to put a monkey wrench into their Mallardic Momentum™ this time. But never fear, this early loss was not a devastation. USC is next, and I feel we will be ready to bring our spirits back up.

Minus a momentum-changing play from the Special Teams unit, the group cannot be used as a scapegoat in our first loss of the season. A number of things occurred on a team level that our amazing coaching staff will evaluate and assist our talented team to tighten up and be ready for SC.

Personally, I did not think at the time that Oregon's momentum-changing play was going to alter the complexion of the game, but did it ever. It provided the down-but-not-quite-out Ducks with the emotional turning point, suddenly restoring their confidence and deflating our killer instinct to put this game away when we had the wicked waterfowl on the ropes. I even caught myself getting a little over confident and excited when we were up 21-3 early.

The Special Teams' game-changing play to which I am referring was that crafty onside kick that Oregon risked against us after pulling back to within 11 points at 21-10 early in the game. It was a tremendously gutsy call that ended up working out in their favor and made Duck players and fans believe that all had not been lost.

Initially, I thought that Oregon's cover team put an early hit on our return man (#23 Austin Yancy) that was fielding the onside kick, thus causing the fumble. Upon further review, I noticed that our front line on the return team was "too anxious" and jumped up two yards to field the onside kick. The rules clearly state that the cover team cannot rough up the return team until the ball has traveled 10 yards. But if the return team jumps forward, the ball and contact become fair game. A good example of how this turnover could have been avoided is if Oregon's kicker had performed the same kick and the cover men had wiped out our front line at 10 yards before the ball was arriving, then the referees would have called interference. Who knows, that might have changed he ultimate outcome.

In changing strides a bit, kicker Nate Whitaker (#39)  had a very nice game going 4-4 on his extra points and making a clutch 46-yard field goal when we "really, really" needed it to stay up 31-24 at the half and go into the locker room on a positive note. Nate's kickoffs were also very good, with two of his six kick-offs going for touchbacks, and the four that were returned by Duck players yielded an average of only 18 yards per return. This is a testament to Nate putting more hang time on his kicks this past week and the Cardinal's cover unit getting down the field to make plays. I was quite satisfied with this element of the game.

We will definitely have to be prepared against USC this Saturday, as they missed two field goals in a one-point loss to Washington. Needless to say, Special Teams will be a major emphasis in USC's practices leading up to our game. They should always be a focus of attention, but sometimes things can go into a bit of a "lull". And when I say a "lull", I mean that sometimes Special Teams emphasis disappears in terms of time spent practicing on them, even though it's "talked about" as being important. It is almost always Offense and Defense... and then Special Teams…but fortunately I don't believe that to be the situation with our Cardinal this year.

In further illustration, I believe that only 26 of the 157 plays that were run during the Stanford/Oregon game were Special Teams plays. Coaches like to stress that Special Teams is one-third of the game along with Offense and Defense, even though it actually only amounts to about 17% of the plays. I've experienced and witnessed situations where teams take that play off to rest, and trust me, it can come back to haunt you. "Oh, it's just a punt. Kick the ball and someone will make the tackle." Um, not always! 

Reflecting on my earlier lamentation about losing to Arizona in 1993 (incidentally the very game during which The Bootleg had its origin), I must disclose a mea culpa. I am guilty of taking a play off. I kicked a lazy low kick to the goal line and my teammates didn't have time to get down into coverage. Needless to say, I had to flag down Arizona scat back Chuck Levy at our 15-yard-line, but it was my fault for making that play possible. Special Teams is an intangible, quiet game-changer when your execution either is or isn't there.

I don't believe that the 2010 Stanford Cardinal has a victim in this category this season. We do appear to do pay proper attention to our units. Daniel Zychlinski, our punter, still hasn't been called on a lot but he was right around 40 yards per punt against Oregon, with one inside the 20, and  with no touchbacks. Daniel seems to be a selfless punter and a team player by not feeling he needs to pad his punting average by getting an extra 10 yards and a field position-diminishing touchback. Secretly I used to hate punting from the opposition's 35-yard-line into the wind, because it was too long to try a field goal, knowing fully that it would affect adversely my punting average while doing what was clearly in the best interest of the team. So I did what I had to do and another former Stanford punter who followed me, Kevin Miller, was also very effective at not worrying about distance. He just did what the coaches asked of him and I think Daniel Z. has been very good with that.

Special Teams just needs to stay focused on each and every play and continue to do the things they have done up to this point. The rest should take care of itself with the offense and defense game planning for this upcoming weekend.

Oh, and one more thing. The Bootleg's "Emeritus" asked me to get deeper into the trenches and explain kicking and punting in more detail this week, so I decided to offer some extra insights that I hope will afford you a behind-the-scenes look at what life can be like for a Stanford kicker and punter. Here are my recipes for success in the "Wild World of Specialists".

"The Aaron Mills Recipe for Sure-Fire Success"

To all Stanford football fans that are interested in Special Teams and/or have kids that aspire to become a kicker or punter, here is a bonus segment about my personal experience and opinions about what it takes to succeed in this unique aspect of the game.My advice to aspiring young kickers and punters can be summed up with what I like to call the "Three P's", which are Patience, Persistence and Perseverance.

When learning the skills that are necessary to become a quality kicker or punter, you may go through periods where you struggle with your progress.

Learning "how" to kick and punt takes the first "P" - PATIENCE.  Whenever I went through difficult periods, I was tempted to do one of two things: either continue practicing that same day until I got it right, or become frustrated and stop trying altogether. Thank goodness I never chose to stop trying! But I did choose to continue kicking more on the same day a few times and learned real quickly that was not the best answer either. By continuing to practice more during the same session, I found that my leg started to tire to the point that I was beginning to develop even more bad habits by improperly using my body to compensate for my fatigued leg strength. After learning the hard way, I began to develop a PATIENT approach towards my development and that played an integral part in my ascent to the professional level.

The second "P" is PERSISTENCE. What set me apart from the rest of the competition starting at the high school level was that I considered my kicking and punting aspirations to be a 365-day, year-round responsibility. When each season ended, I dedicated myself to improving my leg strength in the weight room to make improved strides for the next season. I also made sure that I kicked and punted on a regular basis in the off-season to stay sharp. Just like any job or career, if you stop practicing for 5 to 6 months straight, you will regress and be forced to work twice as hard just to get back to where you were the previous season. A good personal example was my progress in high school. I worked extremely hard in the weight room to improve my leg strength and it showed in my games through my increased distance on kicks. In ninth grade, I kicked a 36-yard field goal. In 10th grade, I kicked a 42-yard field goal. In 11th grade, I kicked a 52-yard field goal. And in 12th grade, I kicked 51- and 53-yard field goals. Steady as she goes.

The final and perhaps most pivotal "P" is PERSEVERANCE. Throughout my career, I have been met by difficult challenges that threatened my opportunities to kick and punt. In 10th grade, I broke my kicking foot during a punting drill right before we were to play in the Florida state playoffs and it was devastating setback. I had to work twice as hard that off season to improve because I had to rehabilitate physically before I could move forward. Needless to say, I was up to the task and finished a successful high school career, earning a full scholarship that landed me at Stanford. However, that would not be the last obstacle I'd be forced to overcome.

My freshman season at Stanford was a very difficult time for me. Although I was 42-42 on extra points, I only connected on 7-18 field goals. I hit one of those slumps that I just couldn't seem to get out of and the coaching staff had lost their confidence in me, which made it even more difficult. It was such a bad slump that Stanford recruited another kicker and that was my last season as the full-time kicker.

My sophomore season was spent as solely the kick-off specialist. Although I sincerely felt that I was good enough to still handle field goals, I held on tightly to the one job that I could perform for my team, which was kicking off. Realizing that my opportunity to place-kick was probably gone for a while, I dedicated myself to improving my punting skills. The punting slot was going to be wide open for my junior season, and I focused on winning that job.

I worked harder than I have ever worked before to win the job, and when the time came to perform, I like to think I made the most of it. I finished my junior and senior seasons as the starting punter and kickoff specialist, averaging 41.5 yards per punt for my career and being selected to the All Pac-10 Conference team. My "persistence" also paid off when the kicker that took over for me went into a slump. The head coach called on my number to kick in the final three games of my career. I had not kicked in a college game over 30 games, but I was ready when summoned. I made all seven of my PAT attempts and happily made good on my only field goal attempt.

There is one major detail that I left out of this story. In between my junior and senior season at Stanford, I tore my ACL in my kicking leg, which required reconstructive knee surgery. I managed to beat the odds by rehabilitating my knee in time for the first game of my senior season. That was five months after my surgery, and ACL surgery rehabilitation usually takes at least eight months. The miracle of modern medicine!

Remember that no "P" works by itself. You must apply all three in unison and you will be prepared for just about any obstacle that gets in your way.

Until next week, let's put another one back in the win column! Beat the Trojans! But if a PAT at the end would only tie the game, let's go for two. In fact, let's go for two in any scenario!

About the Author: Aaron Mills kicked and punted at Stanford University from 1990-94 and was an Honorable Mention All-Pac 10 as a punter in 1993. After graduating from Stanford and having reconstructive knee surgery in 1994, the Satellite Beach, Florida-native was invited to participate in the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis in 1995. A 6-0, 180-pound specialist, he ended up kicking for the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League in 1995-96, playing an integral part in San Jose 's road to the AFL Western Division title in 1996. That same year, he set an Arena Football League record by making a 63-yard field goal against the Florida Bobcats, which tied the long-standing NFL record (held by Tom Dempsey 1970 & Jason Elam 1998). Aaron retired from kicking after the 1996 season to pursue a career in real estate while continuing to work with aspiring kickers and punters. He has been a featured expert on www.Kicking.com. Aaron and his wife now make their home in lively Las Vegas, Nevada.

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