"Just For Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills
Well, let's call this the "Just for Kicks - The Mega-Edition"! It's great to be back after a brief sabbatical. Let's just say I was ..."working through something". Needless to note, this is going to be a catch-up edition, covering our last four games. Wow! This is going to be a lot of writing! But hey, when you're writing about the 2010 Cardinal putting all four of the games I'm about to cover into the "W column", it makes writing this epic "column" all the much easier.
I have finally created a new "handle" for my Special Teams column. In the future, I will be a.k.a. "Milli Vanilli." When I first came to The Farm to play football in 1990, then-Special Teams Coach Chris Foerster informed me that the kickers and punters go by their last names, but the nicknames must end in an "i" or "y." John Hopkins was called "Hoppy," Paul Stonehouse was known as "Stoney," and I was naturally called "Milli." It happens that I chose not to use a "y" at the end of my name because it made my name look a bit feminine!
So my nickname stuck, since it was 1990, right around the time Milli Vanilli (the pop group) was caught for fraudulent lip- synching. My teammates had a field day once they caught wind of my nickname being "Milli", and thus they were quick to add the "Vanilli". My friends and former teammates still call me "Milli" (Vanilli) to this day! The handle is very appropriate looking back, because I'm not a very good singer, so I in all candor, I would have probably lip-synched like they did.
On the other hand, the Stanford Cardinal have been singing loud and proud on the field this season. There is no going through the motions when you are sitting (but not resting) on an outstanding 9-1 record. I have just a few quick notes before I dig in to my Special Teams analysis. The first note is that our 9-1 start this year has not been duplicated since the 1951 season. At least in the modern college football era, we are deep into uncharted, exciting territory for long-patient fans. This 2010 Cardinal club is also well on its way to being the first team since my 1992 campaign to achieve a 10-win season (10-3 in 1992). We have three games left to do it, but I'm all for records being broken. There's nothing negative or envy-inspiring in my book if "we" run the table and finish 12-1.
Finally, I would like to step outside the Special Teams box and give some "special" recognition to our defense. We already know what a tremendous job the offense has done this year, but the defense has bounced back nicely from a few hiccups. Our offense had to keep scoring, ala the Miami Dolphins of the Dan Marino, era having to win shoot-outs every week. In the last 3 games, our defense is allowing just 10 points per game and has registered two shutouts this season. Remarkably, the Cardinal has out-scored it opposition 398-200 through 10 games. Let's keep that momentum going, guys!
Without further adieu, welcome to the latest edition of "Just For Kicks"
Stanford 17, Arizona State 13
We had to dig deep, showing great grit and determination to pull this game out against a stubborn and swift Arizona State team. I had a feeling this one was going to be close, with the game being on the road and also the fact that ASU has historically given us problems.
Before getting into the Special Teams trenches for my in-depth analysis of the ASU game, I am going to give my opinion on who won the Special Teams facet of the game. I am going to give the slight edge to Stanford, and not because I am being biased. Allow me to explain how I came to this conclusion.
The place-kicking was pretty even, but I ended up giving the slight edge to Nate Whitaker (#39), as his only field-goal miss looked like a close, but questionable call on the part of the referees. I thought for sure that Nate made that field goal. The edge goes to Stanford because Devils kicker Thomas Weber, who has been going through a steady decline ever since his Lou Groza Award-winning freshman year, missed a key extra point after ASU took their first lead of the game. Keeping the score to within a field goal took some pressure off of our offense, so Weber's miss was more critical than Whitaker's miss.
Like place-kicking, the punting game was a close one to call. ASU's Trevor Hankins averaged 37.9 yards on 7 punts, with an impressive 4 punts downed inside the 20 yard line, with no touchbacks. Daniel Zychlinski averaged 37.0 yards on 4 punts with 0 downed inside the 20 yard line, with no touchbacks. Sounds like the edge goes to Hankins, but here's the twist. Stanford averaged nearly 19 yards per punt return vs. 1.5 yards per return for ASU. The fact that Stanford's net punting was far better than ASU's (36.3 to 29.9), inclines me to give the edge to Zychlinski…and for that matter, to our punt return and punt coverage units.
The only edge that I gave to ASU was in the kick-off return and kick-off coverage game. ASU averaged 26.3 yards per return to our paltry average of 10.7 yards per return. We will definitely need to see some improvement in this area next week at Cal. OVERALL ADVANTAGE: STANFORD
In close games like this past one with Arizona State,
field position is key. Those extra 6.4 yards extra on net punting were key.
Nate's ability to settle down and make an important field goal after missing one
was also important. Kickers have to be like cornerbacks and have a very short
memory. Now that I have given my overall assessment, it's time to get into
the specifics of the kicking and punting from last weekend.
Nate Whitaker went a perfect 2-2 on his extra points,
bringing his numbers up to 48-51. Nate's next extra point, AND IT'S GOING TO BE
AGAINST CAL, will put him at the top of the Stanford record books for most extra
points in a season. The snap, hold and kick for both extra points were perfectly
executed (drilled down the middle both times) against the Devils.
I can't say that Nate's performance in this area of the game was a bad one…not at all. After missing a 34-yard field goal earlier in the game, Nate came out and made a clutch 44-yard field goal to give us a 10-7 lead in what was shaping up to be a defensive struggle. Not many people were expecting a low scoring game.
For those of you that didn't see the game, Nate Whitaker
missed a 34 yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
When the kick hit the retaining net behind the uprights, the kick looked like it
was just right of center going through. Apparently, the kick must have sailed
just outside the upright. Had Nate kicked that from the left hash towards the
right upright, they may have called the kick good. The reason being is that a
kick coming from the outside right hash into the right upright and the right
upright was high enough, there's a chance it would bounce off and miss. In my
left hash scenario the same right upright, if hit the same as Nate's kick from
the right hash, it is quite possible that the ball would carom through.
Hopefully my reasoning made sense to all the Physics majors out
Nate had 4 kickoffs in this low scoring slugfest, and he
made all of them count. None of his kickoffs were taken out past the 27 yard
line, and every kickoff reached the end zone. Nate's first two kickoffs were
virtually identical kicks, one yard deep in the end zone and returned to the 27
yard-line. His third kick-off was 4 yards deep and taken out to the 25 yard
line. Our go ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter must have given Nate a
nice boost of adrenaline, as he pounded the ball 10 yards deep to make certain
that no Sun Devil would break our hearts by breaking a big return. All in all,
this is one of the finer kickoff displays from Nate this
As usual, Daniel was dependable with his place holding duties, but it was probably one if his poorer outings of the season punting the football. Daniel averaged 37.0 yards on 4 punts, which isn't his worst game average of the year, but all of his punts were in the middle of the field and he let 2 of his 4 punts get away from him. Before I get to those 2 punts, Daniel's best effort was a nice high hanging 43 yard punt which resulted in the Arizona State return man fumbling the football. Unfortunately, we were unable to get the recovery.
The toughest part of Daniel's game came on his last two punts. The first bad punt of 33 yards was a result of Daniel sweeping his leg across his body during his follow through, resulting in him hooking the ball. That's the first time that I have really seen him do that on his follow through. The last bad punt made have been built on his previous punt. Daniel rushed the punt this time, resulting in a poor drop that caused him to kick the ball of the side of his foot. If we are going to beat Cal on Saturday, we have to shore up some of these inconsistencies.
Stanford 42, Arizona 17
Watching Stanford lose a 38-29 4th quarter lead to Arizona last year for a final score of 43-38 really stuck in my craw until we had a chance this year to avenge that loss and put it behind us. And boy did we ever avenge that loss.
Some might say that this was the best overall game that Stanford has played despite having two road shutouts under our belts this season. Arizona boasts one of the most high-powered offenses and talented quarterbacks in the nation, which makes giving up only 17 points to Arizona feel practically like getting a shutout.
As Coach Harbaugh mentioned in a post game Press Conference, he felt that this was our most complete game in all three phases: Offense, Defense and of course, my Special Teams. OVERALL ADVANTAGE: STANFORD
You heard him, if Coach Harbaugh says we won the Special Teams battle, how can I disagree with that? Well, I almost disagreed with him and made this a draw. What tipped the scales in Stanford's favor was simply throwing out Daniel Zychlinski's last punt of 22 yards. Keenyn Crier out distanced Daniel in average (45.8-34.5), but once again, we made up ground on net punting average (36.6-34.5). We didn't allow a single punt return yard and Crier's average was high due to driving most of his punts, one of which gave Drew Terrell enough space to bust open a 27-yard return.
Neither team missed any kicks, but Nate out-kicked Alex Zendejas on kickoffs. He had the stronger leg and it showed. Let's take a closer
look at the nuts and bolts of the Special Teams in this fantastic win against a
team that has always seemed to cause us fits.
Nate Whitaker was a perfect 6-6 on extra points against Arizona as he continued to close in on the Stanford record for most extra points in a season (Mike Biselli had 48 in 1999). Extra points 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 were all perfectly executed. Extra point #3 was the only kick that wasn't solid. On this particular extra point, which made the score 21-3, Nate looked as if he rushed it a bit, resulting in him pulling his hips through the kick too quickly. Once you over-rotate your hips, you're either going to make the ball curve or just simply pull the ball straight to the left (for right-footed kickers). It's the same thing for left-footed kickers, just reverse the scenario.
Daniel Z. did a great job of holding again. I like
how, when he takes a knee to prepare for the hold, he puts his right knee to the
ground with his back (left) leg in the up position. Why, you ask? It's quite
simple, once explained. In college, kickers are not allowed to place-kick off of
a tee, with the exception of kick-offs. Nate will spot the mark where he wants
Daniel to place the football, and then Daniel aligns his back (left) propped up
leg-even with Nate's mark as a frame of reference. When Daniel receives the snap
and his left arm feels resistance against his left leg as he is bringing the
ball back, he now knows to go straight down with the hold.
This is an easy section to write. Because our offense
was running on all cylinders against the Wildcats, not only did Nate not make a
field goal this game, he didn't even have a field goal attempt! Since this is
such a small section this week, I mentioned in an earlier article that I was
going to give a bonus section on "The Art of Tackling" for kickers and punters.
I plan on releasing that bonus section in my analysis of the Cal game. I have to
fit it in somewhere, but I haven't seen our specialists pressed into action yet.
So look out for that bonus section next
Okay, so Nate did not have any field-goal attempts, but he did have seven kickoffs to keep him plenty busy. Mr. Whitaker did win the kick-off battle against Alex Zendejas. Nate is constantly improving. Zendejas' kickoffs were to the 13, 9, 3 and 4 yards into the end zone respectively. Whereas Nate's kickoffs sailed to the 4, touchback, touchback, 6, 5, 2 and 3 respectively.
I do have a couple of points to make with a couple of
kick-offs, however. The kickoffs that went to the 6 and the 5 yard-line
(kickoffs #4 and #5) were a little low for my liking. Nate has an explosive
kick-off follow up like I did at Stanford. If you become too aggressive on your
follow through, your body tends to rise up too fast and you don't get under the
ball for better hang time. It's the same as bringing your head up too soon on a
golf swing, and you end up "topping" the ball. On kickoff #6 to the 2 yard-line,
I really noticed a difference in Nate's approach as it looked like he was being
extra conscious of staying down through the ball.
If you just look at the numbers, you might think that Daniel Zachlinksi had a poor day punting the football. Daniel averaged just 34.5 yards per punt in four attempts. The good news is that Arizona had no punt-return yardage against our coverage.
In all fairness to Dan three of his four punts were fine. It was just his last punt from our 37 which traveled a mere 22 yards. It appeared to me that Daniel had enough time with his protection…he just simply rushed it. He must have been feeling some rushing pressure that I did not pick up on, but everyone has one of those kinds of punts once in a while. My worst punt was 19 yards at home against Oregon State. Bill Walsh was not happy with me (I can smile about it now).
Another thing that hurt Daniel's average on the day was a 25-yard punt on his first attempt, but it was downed at the Arizona 10 yard-line. Now that is a 25-yard punt that he was supposed to execute. Having only one touchback in 24 punts on the season really shows that Daniel is a team player. He could have easily padded his stats by booming his first punt through the end zone, but that wouldn't have done us any good.
Stanford 41, Washington 0
Before I get started on the Special Teams play against Washington, I must say that our second shutout of the season could not have been more convincing. It almost looked as if we were playing against a high school football team on Saturday. I believe our last two-shutout season came on the year I was born back in 1972.
However, instead of saying that the hapless Prairie View A&M and Columbia University teams of yore could have beaten this Washington team on Saturday, I would like to think that the result was rather a testament to just how good Stanford is this year.
Special Teams was vanilla (not in a bad way…read on) and productive in my opinion this past week. "Vanilla" is my favorite flavor of ice cream because it‘s smooth, and that is how I felt this unit performed on Saturday. It was nothing over the top because there were no "over the top" moments ala USC. The Special Teams units simply went out and performed their plays to success in accordance with each situation. But I don't want to cheat you with small talk. I will break down kicking, punting and kickoffs as usual to provide more insight as to what made this a win for our unit.
As I have mentioned in one of my previous articles, the game is broken down into three categories: Offense, Defense and Special Teams. Win 2 out of 3 of those categories and you stand a good chance at winning the game. Against UW, we won all three facets…thus no surprise that the Cardinal won decisively, 41-0. Now let's get to the nuts and bolts of our Special Teams play.OVERALL ADVANTAGE: STANFORD
Giving Stanford the nod on the Special Teams play this
game was a "no brainer." If Washington kicker Erik Folk didn't have to kick off
to start the second half, he could have stayed at his dorm room to do some
homework. Folk had no kicking attempts, just the kick-off. As for Stanford, Nate
finished strong and Daniel made the most of his time on the field. Great
Unlike the previous game against Washington State, Nate's weakest extra point
of the game was his first extra-point attempt. His first extra point was quick-paced and
straight down the middle, but uncharacteristically low. If Nate wasn't so quick
to the ball, Washington may have had a chance to block that first extra point.The final
four extra points attempted by Nate in his 5 for 5 day were all
straight down the pipe with authority. He didn't have any signs of getting away
from his technique as the game wore on, and he was busier this week than last
week (16 total kicks this week versus 13 total kicks last week).
It was in this phase of the Special Teams game that made me a believer in Nate's ability to put a miss behind him and move on. He did it after a missed extra point earlier in the season against Notre Dame, only to come down and calmly hit the game-winning 30-yard field goal. But that was just one instance. Could he prove it over time?
Up until this game, Nate had not missed a single field goal dating back to late last season. We would find out soon enough, because everyone eventually misses. Nate's first field goal attempt of the game was from 40 yards. It looked like his form was good and he easily had the distance. However, judging by the way the ball traveled through the air, it looked as though a gust of wind carried the ball wide left. I'm not sure if the wind snuck up on him or if he just misjudged the wind prior to the kick. That's what makes being a kicker such a difficult task. For example, there is a 20-mile per hour gust of wind going from east to west. If you were in Nate's shoes attempting a 40-yard field goal, you might have to consider starting the path of the kick just outside the right upright to give yourself enough leeway for the ball to drift back inside the uprights. It's definitely a thinking player's position, as is punting.
Now to the good part of the game for Nate. He came back
and not only drilled a 23-yard field goal, he came back out and did the same
thing again from 39 yards out. Congratulations Nate for keeping it
This was the kind of game I have been waiting for out of Nate Whitaker on his kickoffs. Nate had seven kickoffs with two touchbacks. Without factoring in the touchbacks, the five kickoffs that were returned landed (on average), at the 1.8 yard line. Our Special Teams held Washington to 20 yards per return.
I saw much better hang-time on Nate's kick-offs this
week, which allowed our coverage team to get down the field and make some plays.
Keeping Washington pinned back after each time we scored certainly made it
difficult on the Huskies always having to drive 80 yards to respond…and they
never did. Good job Nate and good job coverage
Daniel did do a lot of place holding for Nate this week, which was once again, the most action he saw during the game. His holds were, again, right on the mark. But what is more impressive is that although Daniel only had one punt, boy did he make the most of it. I am seeing flashes of ever increasing maturity and understanding from Daniel. He knows he has a big leg, but he is starting to tame it by hanging higher punts versus driving lower punts for further distance. Daniel has excellent form in launching a high-hanging 45-yard punt, giving the coverage team time to get down the field, holding Washington to a two-yard return. The punt team yielded an impressive net punting average of 43 yards. Any Special Teams coach in the country would take that result.
Z - I'm sorry you're not getting more punting attempts because I've enjoyed watching your progression. But the less Stanford fans see of you 15 yards behind center and the more they see of you on one knee, seven yards behind center, the happier we will all be…
Stanford 38, Washington St. 28
The game looked a lot closer on paper if all you look at is the final score. However, Washington State managed to save a little face by erasing a 31-7 deficit with 21 fourth-quarter points. In 1992, when we played Cal, a similar set of circumstances happened as in this game. We were up 41-3 in the fourth quarter and Cal manage to reel off 21 points in the final 6 minutes. Yes, 41-21 is still a comfortable win, but it should have been even more convincing.OVERALL ADVANTAGE: STANFORD (by a narrow margin)
Washington State played fairly well on Special Teams, but I felt in the end that we made a couple more plays than the Cougars. It was definitely a tough call.
And now for my Special Teams
Nate Whitaker was a perfect 5-5 on his extra points against Washington State. For the first three quarters, Nate did a very good job of keeping his head down, hips square and driving the football.
I have been impressed primarily by two things about Nate and his extra points in 2010. One, the football really jumps off his foot with great force. Nate may be only 5'9", but he makes up for it with leg speed and he is adept at utilizing his entire body by following through the kick. Secondly, Nate has excellent "lift" on his kicks. The only way I see a team blocking one of his is kicks is for him to get it blocked by a rusher coming around the edge, not by "jumpers" up the middle.
My only observation on Nate's fifth and final extra
point which made the score 38-14 at the time, was that he leaned back and away
as he kicked the ball, causing it to drift right on him again. I tend to doubt
that he got lazy on the kick with us up 23 points with a little over six
minutes to play. I think that Nate was just plain tired, with six kicks
and seven kick-offs on the day. Stamina could have played a role in
I would have like to see Nate go 0-0 on field goals,
because the circumstances behind his 20 yard field goal resulted from a bad
center exchange on third down in which it appeared we had a wide-open
receiver in the end zone, had the exchange been sound. However, Nate put the
first three points of the game on the board by calmly drilling the field
goal. Being a 20-yard field goal, the techniques I described in the extra point
section also applied to Nate's field goal. His head was down, he got great
elevation and nailed it down the middle.
Nate has been a very dependable kicker for the Cardinal these past two seasons. Stanford's gain was Notre Dame's loss when he transferred to Stanford. Kicking off, if I had to pick an area of Nate's game, was the one thing that needed the most improvement. He has steadily gotten better as the season has progressed, getting more touchbacks. The only thing that makes me nervous is when Nate is unable to get a touchback, even with the kick still making the goal line to three yards deep, our opposition's deep backs and returning them with room to move.
As for the kickoffs in the Washington State game, they
were acceptable on the whole. We got a couple of touchbacks and the
shortest kick-off went to the six yard-line. Most of Nate's kickoffs were
to the goal line or a couple yards deep. We stopped Wazzu once at the 15
yard-line, but again, we need to be careful about the low kicks even if they are
deep kicks. WSU took the ball out to our 25 on three occasions when
fielding the ball from the end zone. If we're not careful, one of those returns
might be a game changer for the worse.
Daniel Zychlinski had a nice day at the office, with three punts for a 44.3 yard average and one punt downed inside the 20. Daniel had one touchback on a 49-yard punt, which isn't the end of the world. The touchbacks that drive Special Teams coaches crazy are the punts from the 35 yard-line, where a touchback only nets us 15 yards. In Daniel's case, at least we moved the ball 29 yards after his touchback.
The more I get to see Daniel punt (it's taken awhile since we don't punt often), the more relaxed he looks taking the snap and going through his steps. When I say relaxed, I don't mean "reading the newspaper in a La-Z-Boy recliner" relaxed. He just doesn't look nervous when he's on the field and he shows excellent pocket awareness. Daniel can tell very easily if he needs to make snap second adjustments. I look to see Daniel continue on making progress toward becoming one of the nation's elite punters.
Even though this is not directly about punting, Daniel
is also Nate Whitaker's holder for kicking. Some coaches prefer that
quarterbacks or wide receivers hold. I'm glad Coach Harbaugh has elected to
utilize Dan as the punter in that role. Punters have to catch snaps (perfect or
not) from 15 yards back without a hitch. You can't afford to even bobble the
ball. Additionally, Daniel knows what his kicker wants in a hold and there is
more of a bond between punter and kicker. Good decision on the Special Teams for
going this route.
POINTS TO PONDER FOR "THE BIG GAME"
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Special Teams play "will" be a tipping point against Cal on Saturday. Having looked at the Special Teams statistics for Stanford and Cal, they are remarkably similar, with only a couple of discrepancies.
In my opinion, after having compared the numbers, the most important part of the Special Teams play is going to be found in the punting game. Cal boasts a better punt return average than we, so Daniel needs to make sure he doesn't out-kick our coverage in order to avoid big plays.
Our punt return team needs to come up big and get up the
field while protecting the ball. NO TURNOVERS ON SPECIAL TEAMS ON OUR PART.
Sure, Cal's Bryan Anger has an impressive punting average, but the Bears give up more yards per return than we do. There could be some good possibilities for us to break big, game-changing returns.
Based on the statistics, field position and turnovers are going
to decide this one. If we win the field-position battle, we have one of the most
capable kickers in the nation and Stanford have a definite advantage in this
The "Milli Vanilli" Final Score Prediction:
Stanford 27, California 17
Let's go out and get that Stanford Axe back on
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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