Kickers in the running for Vanderbilt's starting job aim to keep teammates from running

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 at 5:45pm

After crashing and colliding into each other for more than two hours, the last thing anyone on the Vanderbilt football team wants is more practice.

So when Carey Spear and Ryan Fowler line up at the end of workouts for field goal attempts ranging from 30 to 45 yards, they know one miss doesn’t just extend the day. It means the whole team runs sprints.

Of course, Spear and Fowler don’t want to let their teammates down. But each admits to selfish thoughts when he boots the ball.

“We’ve got to run it too,” Spear said. “None of us want to run.”

Lately, the offensive linemen have been able to breathe easier. Fewer kicks have gone awry leading to minimal — if any — running. As spring practices wind down and culminate with Saturday’s Black & Gold Spring Game (6 p.m., Vanderbilt Stadium), the kickers are leaving the field satisfied.

The 2012 season opener is more than four months away. Consistent and positive results this spring, however, can’t be overlooked, especially after the Commodores missed six of 14 field goal tries in 2011.

“It has definitely been a huge improvement,” Fowler, a senior, said. “I’ve felt really good this spring. I think Carey can say the same. I think it goes back to the whole thing at the end of practice — putting pressure on us.”

Appeasing their teammates is not the only pressure facing the pair.

Coach James Franklin is embracing the role of pest. During the eight final kicks, Franklin doesn’t stand by and watch — he distracts. The second-year head coach douses the kickers with water, whispers “sweet nothings” and blasts the air horn from point-blank range.

“What happens a lot of times is you don’t kick at game speed,” Franklin said. “As a quarterback you don’t take a drop at game speed. You’re practicing bad habits and you’re building poor muscle memory. ... You would like for them to be mature enough to do it on their own but a lot of times they’re not so forcing them to do it that way is important for us.”

More than handling the mental pressure, each kicker is fine-tuning the technical aspect of the trade after each missed three of seven field goals last fall.

Spear, a junior, believes fundamentals tripped him up more in 2011. Watching the game film and talking to his kicking coach back in Ohio, he realizes he succumbed to crunching. “When you drop your diaphragm down and you can’t get the ball as high,” he said. He also failed to rotate his hips through the kick, similar to a golf swing.

He hopes tweaking those tendencies helps him kick as he did in preseason camp last fall when he snagged the starting job from Fowler, who had the job the previous two years and tied the single-season school record with 16 field goals in 2009.

Spear, a captain in 2011, started off strong making his first three field goals before missing a pair against Alabama. His first big-pressure situation, however, came against Arkansas — and he missed a 27-yarder that would have forced overtime.

“There were some fundamental things I didn’t take care of in some of those games, especially against Arkansas,” Spear said. “I know that was a fundamental kick. I had good solid contact. It was more [bringing the] hips through [the kick], alignment stuff. I know it wasn’t the pressure. I live for those moments and I love the competition here.”

Fowler inserted himself back in the starting competition when he took over for Spear last November.

He missed three of his first four kicks but converted his final three to close the season.

Franklin won’t name a starter until the end of fall camp in August. That doesn’t mean the kicks in April don’t mean something.

After all, it starts with the fundamentals.

“When you kick you do the same thing every time,” Fowler said. “If you’re on the right hash, on the left hash, sitting in the middle, you’re going to kick the same way every time. It is perfecting those fundamentals because when you go out there you’re not going to change something just because you’re 50 yards back or 10 yards away. That is what the perfect kicker is trying to get, which we know is not possible.

“It is just trying to limit the mistakes and making it so small that if you do make a mistake all of your other fundamentals make up for it.”

2 Comments on this post:

By: Rasputin72 on 4/12/12 at 7:10

If anyone thinks that James Franklin is the darling of the 15,000 Vanderbilt fans, just think what a second coming of Christ he would have been had he had a field goal kicker last year?

By: rldavenport@com... on 4/12/12 at 8:08

It's refreshing to have a Vanderbilt coach who emphasizes excellence with special teams, because failed field goal or extra point attempts killed them during the Bobby Johnson era. It was obvious that he didn't spend much time in practice emphasizing special teams. I counted at least 10 games during his tenure in which losses could be traced to missed kicks. Thank you, James Franklin, for understanding how important special teams are to building a successful program.