Keeping the World Simple

After starting out the season shaky, freshman kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn shook off some of the ghosts of UCLA Kickers Past when he made the game-winning field goal against ASU last Saturday...

We've seen Jeff Locke punt the ball, time and time again, usually with absolute precision down to the very inch.

We've seen Locke kick field goals, every so often, make a tackle, deliver a hit, act as elder team statesman and as a spokesman.

But never have we seen him block as well as he did on Saturday.

He stood with Ka'imi Faibairn on the sideline as the UCLA offense charged down the field in the last one minute, 33 seconds of the Bruins' battle with Arizona State, and he was not going anywhere. Not with the fate of the team – and, well, his own fate, after a coin-flip gaffe led UCLA to kick off in both halves – resting on the foot of a true freshman, four months removed from high school.

In a mass of chaos and confusion, Locke was stoic, as if standing in front of Buckingham Palace. Unflinching.

Kevin Costner was not a better bodyguard.

"My biggest thing I wanted to do on that sideline was keep everyone else away from him," Locke said. "I didn't want people coming up to him like it was some big deal. I was standing right next to him, kind of behind him, making sure guys didn't start smacking him on the head, smacking him on the butt really hard. You don't want him to think it's anything different.

"I just had to give a little stiff arm, make sure no one got him."

No, they'd all have to wait.

Locke wanted the first crack at him.

He just had to wait for the kick to sail through the uprights.

*****

And there it went, from 33 yards out on 3rd-and-3, cutting through the warm Tempe air, not quite end-over-end, not quite straight-down-the-center, but each revolution exorcising another UCLA demon.

Fairbairn barely saw it.

"You can feel it when you come off your foot," Fairbairn said. "I try to keep my eyes back and not look at it, let the crowd tell me, my holder tell me if it went in. It felt like a dream honestly. Every kicker dreams about a kick like that. I gradually looked up, and I saw it for a split second go in. Then Jeff Locke tackled me."

Watching the game-winner.
Fairbairn did not need to see every rotation of the kick because he had confidence it would go in, and that's an appropriate word here, confidence.

It's been the common theme for Fairbairn throughout his freshman season.

He entered the year saddled with a great responsibility – rebuild UCLA kicking lore. After the first year of the post-Kai Forbath era went over like a toddler on a motorcycle, all Fairbairn had to do was reclaim the K in Kicker U.

When he had three extra points blocked in Week 1 against Rice, the hounds came in: have you lost your confidence, has he lost his confidence, what's up with his confidence, does he have confidence.

When he missed two field goals at Nebraska, they came back.

As he missed three of his next six field goals in Weeks 3 through 5, they remained.

Questions. Answers. A regular con game.

But while the ball may have been sailing all over the place, Fairbairn stayed in the same spot.

"Trying to come out here every day and be the same guy is a challenge in itself," Fairbairn said.

And that, in itself, has not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.

It's why Jim Mora and Co. were ready to send him out there for a 50-plus yarder, if need be.

"When you work hard, you gain confidence," Mora said. "When your teammates support you, you gain confidence. When you come out here on the practice field and bang kicks through in front of your teammates, you gain confidence. I've tried to put him in situations in games where he can have success and not failures. It's important early in your career, especially at a position like that where it comes down to you because you can't hide, that you experience success early.

"But we haven't sent him to voodoo doctor to talk about confidence. He's a confident kid."

Added special teams coach Jeff Ulbrich: "I have to remind myself, this kid was in high school last year kicking field goals. All of a sudden he's kicking game-winners for a major university? It was just so awesome. I was so happy for him. Obviously he struggled early, and you talk about screwing with a kid's head, that's got to be hard to handle. It'd be hard enough for a 35-year-old, 15-year NFL veteran to handle.

"But his demeanor and his maturity are so far beyond his age."

They have been for a long time.

*****

Dalton Hilliard knew Fairbairn a half-decade ago, when Hilliard was a senior and Fairbairn a freshman at Honolulu's Punahou High. Hilliard's younger brother was friends with Fairbairn, who was then a soccer player, and the two became friends, as well. Fairbairn wasn't some young, brash, punk kid. Hilliard liked him.

Come Saturday, he knew he could handle the moment.

"Our high school plays all our home games at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii," Hilliard said. "That stadium is huge. It might not be as filled as the Rose Bowl, but the fact that it's such a huge stadium, and the lights, the crowd – we got 37,000 at our state championship – so he's felt that pressure before. He's taken it in such a mature way."

But even with faith in his kicker, Hilliard went a little higher, too.

"Andrew Abbott and I were on the sidelines, kneeled down, heads down, praying," Hilliard said. "We prayed right before the kick, and then I raised my head, and I looked up and saw the ball go through. I just thought two things: excitement and opportunity. Those are the two things. That's something we haven't had before. The opportunities in the past haven't been to this magnitude. The fact we came through, finished this game, shows that this team is a lot different than the past."

If that's all this kick does – raise the stakes, introduce incentive, provide opportunity – then Fairbairn did his job in that very moment.

"When you're getting up at 5 in the morning to come out here and practice and you're going to lift and going to class all day, staying at meetings until late – that kick, those moments, are when it's like, ‘Finally, this is why we do all that,'" Ulbrich said. "The team we have right now has the type of attitude where it's like, ‘Well I want more of that now.' Now they've got a taste of a little success – just a little bit of success – and I think they want more."

They want more because they know what it can lead.

They want more because they have the confidence to know what is in store if they have the guts to take it. From top to bottom.

*****

There are some plays that define a regime, and last Saturday offered one of them.

Not Fairbairn's kick, mind you. But the penultimate play, when, for the first time in what feels like eons, the coaching staff went for it.

After getting the ball back with 3 minutes, 47 seconds left on the clock, the Sun Devils scored in a blur, 2:14 to be exact, cutting right into the heart of the UCLA defense. In a game that turned out to be a drag-out, 15-round title fight, it appeared Arizona State delivered the knockout blow, scoring on a Taylor Kelly-to-D.J. Foster connection to go up 43-42. The Ghost of UCLA's Past was haunting in full force, the pregame coin-flip fiasco looking like it would prove the difference. Misery, cursing, sadness, throwing dishes, heartbreak, a flood of BBS.

After the kickoff, the Bruins took over from their own 33-yard line with a freshman quarterback behind two freshmen offensive linemen, throwing passes to freshman targets and trying to set up a field goal for a freshman kicker.

Only Brett Hundley and Co. played like poised veterans, reeling off four plays of seven-plus yards in less than a minute to get into field-goal range. UCLA had Arizona State on its heels, the Sun Devils ceased bringing pressure, and the Bruins got up to the 22-yard line with 13 seconds left.

On 2nd-and-10, UCLA lined up for what was expected to be a simple run play to set the ball at Fairbairn's preferred spot.

That's what Arizona State expected, at least.

Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone called an inside zone run, catching the Sun Devils off-guard – "That took some balls, didn't it?!" Mazzone said with a laugh – and Franklin squeezed through for seven yards up the middle.

"It was an inside zone play and we were trying to gain as much as we could," Mora said. "We didn't want to run anything wide. Every time I've asked Ka'imi where he wants the ball ideally, he says it doesn't matter. But i know he likes the left-middle. Ulbrich did a good job communicating to Noel Mazzone that we'd like it on the left-middle, if possible, but we were still gonna run the best play in that situation."

Added Ulbrich: "Obviously the kick had enough length to go 50 at the very least, but from a kicker's approach, when he know he's inside that 40-yard range, it helps. When they were going out there, I thought they were just centering the ball for us. Then (Franklin) squirts an extra seven yards, and I was like, "Ohh, that's nice!" That's a beautiful thing right there."

*****

The play itself…not a thing of beauty.

Kevin McDermott's snap was high, Locke catching it at helmet-level before hurriedly trying to get it down for the hold.

Fairbairn didn't notice. He was long past noticing anything besides foot, ball, uprights.

"I was in my own zone," Fairbairn said. "I was getting mentally prepared. Everything shuts off. You're just like watching yourself."

That's the key, Locke said. Getting into a zone.

It exists between the three of them, Fairbairn, McDermott and Locke, like it did with Forbath and his machinery, long-snapper Christian Yount and holder Danny Rees. Now they're just looking for the same results.

"That's why you see the separation between special teams and the rest of the team," Locke said. "They have to hit people. They have to get jacked up. Fired up, to really go put their head down and nail someone. Whereas for us, if you let your emotions go out of control, you get too fired up, you're going to lose your technique. There is a separation - we have to keep our minds clear."

The post-kick dogpile.
That is advice that Fairbairn has taken to heart for some time.

Despite all the problems of a typical 18-year old, with an ocean separating him from home, Fairbairn strives to stay unburdened.

"I try to keep my world simple," Fairbairn said. "School, football. I talk to my family a lot. I learned that from my coach in high school. Keep it simple. You can't control everything. So just work on the things you can control."

Locke practices the same philosophy. Maybe it's a thing about special teamers.

Punt, rinse, repeat.

Hold, rinse, repeat.

Nothing different.

Ever.

"I didn't see anything different with this one," Locke said. "The sun was in my eyes a little bit, and it was tough to see ‘Imi back there. Maybe that's a good thing, because I couldn't see his eyes. It couldn't freak me out at all. But I think he was fine back there. Really it wasn't different until halfway through the kick, when I saw the ball going through and I just…freaked out. That was just fun.

"That dogpile was the most fun I've had in a couple years here."


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