QUINN SHARP CELEBRATED WITH TEAMMATES ON THE FIELD OF UNIVERSITY OF PHOENIX Stadium and in the locker room afterward. He accepted congratulations from appreciative Oklahoma State fans at the airport as he flew home the next day. Yet despite living every college kicker's dream—he hit a 22-yard field goal in overtime to give the third-ranked Cowboys a 41--38 Fiesta Bowl win over No. 4 Stanford—the Big 12's special teams player of the year couldn't help thinking of a forlorn redshirt freshman who'd been on the other side of the field. Sharp never would have gotten his chance at the game-winning kick had Stanford's Jordan Williamson, a second-team All--Pac-12 honoree, made either a 35-yard attempt at the end of regulation or a 43-yarder in the first period of overtime. Visibly devastated on the sideline afterward, Williamson then sat in the corner of the Cardinal locker room, crying, as teammates came by to offer encouragement. "I know how it feels to be in his shoes," said Sharp. "It's not a fun day."
Indeed, some seven weeks earlier, Sharp—17 of 19 on 2011 field goal attempts to that point—missed a 37-yard attempt from the left hash with 1:17 left against Iowa State, sending the ball above and, by the officials' judgment, a few inches outside the right goalpost. The kick would have given the 10--0 Cowboys a 27--24 lead; instead, the underdog Cyclones prevailed 37--31 in double overtime, ultimately costing Oklahoma State a shot at the national championship. Similarly, six days earlier, Boise State's Dan Goodale had missed a 39-yard try with one second left against TCU, the second straight year the Broncos' hopes for an unblemished season were dashed by an errant kick. And, a day after Sharp's miss against Iowa State opened the door for then-fourth-ranked Oregon to vie for the national title, kicker Alejandro Maldonado missed a 37-yarder that would have sent the Ducks into overtime against USC.
"You can't help but see that if some kicks had gone differently, it could have changed the outcome of who played for the national championship and who won the Heisman," says Sharp. "You can't help but say, What if?"
While breakneck offenses and ultraprecise quarterbacks increasingly rule the roost in college football, in 2011 many of the most crucial games were decided by kickers. Most notably, Alabama and LSU met twice and did not produce a touchdown until the last five minutes of the BCS national championship game. The Tigers held off the Tide 9--6 on Nov. 5 in part because Alabama kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster combined to miss four attempts, including one in overtime. Afforded a second chance on Jan. 9—thanks in part to those Oklahoma State, Oregon and Boise misses—Shelley made five field goals (but missed his sole extra point try) in the Tide's 21--0 championship blowout.
"COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS SO COMPETITIVE NOW, THE KICKS mean a lot more," says Jamie Kohl, a former Iowa State kicker (1995 through '98) who now runs national camps for aspiring college and professional kickers. "The games are tight because of scholarship limits and other factors, and a lot of times it comes down to precious kicks."
All those high-profile field goal flubs last season caused consternation among college football followers. Why are college kickers so bad? How hard can it really be for a coach to find one reliable kicker? Yet in reality, college kickers have rarely been better. And some of those with the most egregious misses were among the most reliable in the sport.
In 1975 the NCAA began tracking the success rate of so-called "soccer-style kickers" (who take a running start from the left or right of the ball and boot the ball with the instep, as opposed to the formerly commonplace "straight-on" kickers, who approach from directly behind and strike with their toe). In '78, the first year Division I split into two divisions, the sidewinders across what was then Division I-A (now FBS) made 58.8% of all field goal tries. The number soon began rising. Since the start of the 2000s, the success rate jumped from 67.4% to a record 73.8% in '10. (Last year saw a dip to 70.4%.) In '78 kickers made 29.2% of attempts from 50 to 59 yards. In '10 they connected on 50%. These improvements have come despite two rule changes that should have made placekickers' jobs harder: banning the use of tees beginning in '89, and two years later narrowing the width of goalposts by five feet, to the NFL's standard 18 feet, six inches.
The old stereotype of the scrawny kid with a good leg has been replaced by a new generation of finely tuned athletes who happen to kick. At 6' 2" and 190 pounds, Florida State's All-ACC kicker Dustin Hopkins is taller than the Seminoles' leading receiver (Rashad Greene) and running back (Devonta Freeman). At Kearney (Neb.) High before coming to Nebraska, All--Big Ten kicker and punter Brett Maher was a basketball shooting guard, a long jumper, a pole vaulter, a wide receiver and a cornerback in addition to being a kicker. Oklahoma's Michael Hunnicutt, who made 21 of 24 kicks as a redshirt freshman in 2011, was a starting receiver at Pearce High in Richardson, Texas.
Meanwhile, most aspiring college kickers now receive year-round advanced training thanks to national and regional camps and competitions conducted by gurus such as Kohl and former UCLA kicker Chris Sailer. Sharp, from Mansfield, Texas, first attended Sailer's annual national combine in Las Vegas during his freshman year of high school, while also participating at Sailer's regional camps in Dallas. Nebraska's Maher attended camps at Iowa, Iowa State, LSU, Nebraska and Ohio. Instructors, who often include current or former NFL kickers such as the Saints' Thomas Morstead, help campers hone their technique the way a golf coach helps improve a swing. "People are like, Aw, you just get up there and kick it, but it's not like that," says Sharp. "It's a lot more technical than people think it is. If you're off by a couple inches, it's not going to go through."