Like any football team, good, mediocre or bad, Texas Tech has several players whose play will be particularly critical to the squad's success. These players, whether by virtue of sheer talent, experience, leadership ability, importance of the position played, or depth concerns, are especially crucial. They may or not be the best players on the club, but they would be very conspicuous were they to be absent for any reason. In fact, that may be the best way to conceive of the critical players—they are the performers the team could least afford to lose.
With this weekly series, we will take a reverse order look at the Red Raider football players we consider most invaluable.
No. 17 - Donnie Carona
The life of a kicker is one of boredom and ease punctuated by moments of mind-bending pressure. For Texas Tech's Donnie Carona, 2011 could be a season of intense pressure interrupted by a few precious instances of blessed relaxation. The reason for the reversal is that, in the Red Raider placekicking game, it will be Donnie Carona or bust. There just is no real and credible alternative to the hitherto erratic junior from Beaumont.
Unlike most collegiate kickers, Carona got his ride to the next level via a full scholarship. Scout.com rated him the No.7 kicking prospect in the high school ranks, and Carona had offers from Baylor, Air Force and Ole Miss, in addition to Texas Tech. To this point, however, Carona has had a somewhat rocky career.
Tech's coaches expected Carona to be the solution at kicker for at least three, and ideally four years. But after struggling mightily, even with extra points, Carona lost his placekicking duties to the unlikely Matt Williams, and his role was reduced to kickoffs.
Since that rather dismal freshman season, however, Carona has slowly expanded his scope of operations. He became the kicker of choice on field goals attempts of more than 45 yards—Matt Williams did not possess a howitzer for a leg—and last season earned time as a punter. Now, with Williams and starting punter Jonathan LaCour no longer in the fold, it is conceivable that Carona could be Tech's starting punter and placekicker.
At this juncture there is no doubt that Carona owns the placekicking duties. None of Tech's other kickers have any collegiate kicking experience, nor do they have reputations that would make one think they could unseat Carona. To underscore Carona's unquestioned first-team status, virtually all field goal opportunities in the spring went to Carona. Bradley Hicks and Kramer Fyfe got a few attempt between them at most.
Carona's performance in the spring was curious. Early on, he looked like a kicker reborn. His long kicks exploded off the toe and gained elevation quickly. And more important, he was deadly accurate on the short-to-midrange attempts. Carona looked to have turned the corner in a major way.
But then Carona went into a slump and looked like a kicker with no confidence. Toward the end of spring camp, Carona bounced back somewhat, but was still a bit streaky. He missed a few in a row, and then hit several straight. So in short, we still don't know what Tech has in Carona as a placekicker.
Carona's punting talents are not as crucial to the team's success, but ironically, Carona may be a better punter than placekicker at this point. Last season he punted only 10 times, but averaged an impressive 47.5 yards per boot. Ten punts is not a body of work sufficient to tout one as an All American, but it is enough to tantalize. That said, if Carona is to be the team's punter, he will have to best Ryan Erxleben, who punted well as a freshman but redshirted in 2010.
Now is the time for Carona to step up. The team will rely on him to become a consistent placekicker. If he doesn't ring the bell, Tech could lose a couple of games they shouldn't, and Carona will lose his role as the team's kicker.