While there's no way to replicate the rigors of a college game, Kohl tries to put stress on his pupils by constantly pitting campers against one another in competitions. "[USC's] Heidari was one of the most confident, self-assured guys I've been around," says Kohl. "He got better under those conditions. He hit higher, straighter balls than he usually hit. That's what I like to see." Those whose kicks suddenly go wobbly may not be cut out for the next level.
Richt said he isn't worried about Morgan succumbing to the stress of SEC competition. "What I've noticed over the years is, the more fundamentally sound [a kicker] is, the better chance he has to perform under pressure," says the coach.
High recruiting rankings rarely guarantee future success at any position, but kickers may be among the safest bets. Of Sailer's top 12 high school seniors and juco transfers in the class of 2008, 10 went on to become their school's primary kicker or punter for more than one season, including standouts Sharp, Walsh and Purdue kicker Carson Wiggs. By contrast, just two of Rivals.com's top 12 running backs in the same class (Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams and Texas A&M's Cyrus Gray) went on to have sustained success in college.
Yet kickers are seemingly undervalued by the recruiting sites. While more than 250 players nationally garner the coveted four- or five-star status bestowed by sites such as Rivals, even the top-rated kicker in a given year is relegated to three stars. "You just can't weigh them the same because: a) they're not hitting anybody b) they're not getting hit or c) [they're not] on the field for any consistent length of time," says Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell of kickers. Of course, when they do see the field, their impact is indisputable. "I believe with kickers [a team] needs a great one to be successful," says Sailer. "I see their value being just as important as a lineman or safety."
AFTER THE WAY LAST SEASON PLAYED OUT, IT'S HARD TO argue with Sailer's claim. Missed kicks helped define the BCS race as well as much of the postseason, but in most cases, they were neither a reflection of coaches' inattention nor kickers' seasonlong performances. Alabama's Shelley and Foster bore the brunt of criticism following the Tide's Nov. 5 loss to LSU, but the Tide's offensive miscues in overtime—including a sack and an illegal substitution—forced Foster to kick from 52 yards. Boise's Goodale, a redshirt freshman, had little experience going into his ill-fated Nov. 12 game against TCU; with the Broncos blowing out most of their previous opponents, he had only attempted four kicks beforehand, none longer than 32 yards. Oregon's Maldonado, expected to redshirt, was instead filling in for injured starter Rob Beard. Another substitute, Virginia Tech third-stringer Justin Myer, made four attempts in regulation against Michigan in the Jan. 3 Sugar Bowl but missed his lone attempt in overtime, setting up Brendan Gibbons's game-winning 37-yarder for the Wolverines. The Big Easy was a rare bastion for kicking glory: In the New Orleans Bowl, weeks before the BCS title game, Louisiana-Lafayette's Brett Baer hit a last-second 50-yard field goal against San Diego State to deliver the school's first bowl win as a member of the FBS.
Conversely, there's the case of Stanford's Williamson, who was well on his way to a sterling freshman season, having made 11 of his first 12 attempts before a torn groin muscle caused him to miss three late-season games. "He was just not the same kicker toward the end of the year," says Kohl.
Knowing that, many questioned Stanford coach David Shaw for running the ball up the middle and playing for the field goal at the end of regulation. After missing that 35-yard attempt and having previously sent a kickoff out-of-bounds, Williamson looked rattled by the time he came out for his 43-yard overtime try. Shaw defends his decision with a pledge to stick by the rising sophomore. "Jordan Williamson is an exceptional kicker who is athletic, who has a strong leg, who had been consistent up until the point he got hurt," says Shaw. "He and I have had one conversation about the Fiesta Bowl, and that was the day after. I told him [that] anybody that is any good at anything has hit a low point. ... He can use it as motivation or however he wants to use it."
Richt also took heat for a kicking decision, in Georgia's Jan. 1 Outback Bowl meeting with Michigan State. After the Bulldogs picked off a pass in overtime, Richt had quarterback Aaron Murray take a knee on second down, setting up Walsh for a potential game-winning 42-yard field goal. He missed.
"I, maybe to a fault, believed he was gonna knock it through," Richt said this spring. He had ample reason. In the second overtime Walsh broke the SEC career scoring record with a 47-yarder. Yet the Bulldogs ultimately lost, and Walsh's career ended on a blocked 47-yard attempt in the third overtime. "When he misses at the end of the game, then [people say] he's no longer a 'reliable' kicker," says Sailer. "The reality is he just had a bad game."