In 2014 during an Arizona State football practice, I saw kicker Zane Gonzalez wander over to the Jugs machine. The receivers were through using it, so he fired it up and started catching passes. I jotted it down in my notes, and included the tidbit in an article about the team.
Readers reacted quickly. A few were excited: Arizona State had clearly devised a trick play involving Gonzalez, some direct snap or pass play that would end up with the ball in his hands. Others were angry at me for reporting it and potentially tipping off future opponents that a trick play could be coming.
The reality was much less interesting: There was no trick play. Gonzalez was playing with the Jugs machine because he was bored. He had caught a pass earlier in the season for a two-point conversion, but it was clear that he wasn't taking real reps; he just had nothing else to do.
While every other position in football is coached down to the tiniest detail, kickers and other specialists are mostly left to themselves. According to Inside the Pylon kicking expert (and former college kicker) Chuck Zodda, in a two-hour practice, a kicker is often supervised for just 12 to 15 minutes of team drills for kickoffs, extra points, and field goals. Kicking more than 30 or 40 times in a day is ill-advised.
The rest of the time, they’re largely on their own.
Nearly three years later, at ASU pro day, I watched Sun Devils players run 40-yard dashes while Gonzalez sat on the side eating a Jimmy John’s sandwich.
He finally kicked for the scouts that stuck around (most had already left at that point) at the end of the day, after all the workouts and drills were through. A month later, the Cleveland Browns picked him in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft.
Gonzalez finished his collegiate career as the all-time leader in successful field goals in the FBS and a Lou Groza Award winner. Whatever he was doing in practice was working just fine, but very little of that had to do with the ASU coaching staff.
If a football team is a machine, the kickers are a cog that mostly spins independently. The actual technique that goes into making kicks is rarely taught on the practice field at any level, yet kickers are responsible for more than 30 percent of the points scored in any given NFL season. That’s jarring for a league that strives for ruthless efficiency and is becoming increasingly reliant on analytics to maximize scoring.
Kicking is a significant piece of that puzzle. So why is it so ignored?
Stephen Hauschka was a soccer player before he ever started kicking footballs. He didn’t even attempt to play the sport until he was a sophomore at Middlebury College.
His roommate was a freshman on the school’s football team, and Hauschka decided to try out and test his kicking skills. Hauschka successfully walked on to the squad and three years later was Middlebury’s all-time leader in made field goals.
While he leaned on his soccer skills to make the transition, Hauschka credits coach Steve Wolf for teaching him everything he knows about kicking a football.
“I’m sure most soccer players think they can hit it from 45 or 50 yards,” Hauschka said. “In some ways, if you can kick a soccer ball, you can kick a football. But to really get good at kicking a football in games, you have to hit a different part of the ball than you would a soccer ball.”
The goal every time a football is kicked is to get a combination of height and distance. Kick too far underneath the ball and it will chip straight in the air without getting to the target. Kick too far up on the ball and it will be a line drive that’s easy to block.
“It took me probably about a year or two of kicking a football to really figure it out, and I’m still figuring it out 15 years later.”
With one more year of eligibility after graduating, Hauschka transferred to North Carolina State, then began an NFL career in 2008. After spending the last six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Hauschka joined the Buffalo Bills for 2017. He has been, and remains, one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers.
He does so without much help beyond the coaching he first received at Middlebury.
“I still stay in touch with Coach Wolf and he’s been helpful to bounce some ideas off of,” Hausckha said.
It’s a similar story for Minnesota Vikings kicker Kai Forbath who also transitioned from playing soccer. Like Hauschka’s discovery of Wolf, Forbath’s development was helped by the tutelage of a coach with a kicking background.
“I was lucky enough to go to a high school where Chris Sailer was an alumni and he was just starting a kicking coaching business,” Forbath said. “So he would come to our high school every Monday and he started teaching me as a freshman.”
Forbath went to UCLA and has spent time on three NFL rosters, but like Hauschka, doesn’t get much coaching in the professional ranks. He relies on Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who is considered one of the NFL’s better kicking coaches, despite the fact that he’s a former quarterback and wide receiver who only knows the position through years of osmosis.
“He’s kind of learned what I like to hear and have looked for in my kicking,” Forbath said. “He knows he can’t kick so he’s trying to help as much as he can instead of get in my way.”
Had it not been for chance encounters with Wolf and Sailer, it’s reasonable to assume the talent of Hauschka and Forbath would have never risen to the surface.
Jamie Kohl’s kicking at Iowa State earned him a brief stint with the Seattle Seahawks, but he never appeared in a regular season game. Instead he turned his attention to the coaching ranks and currently serves as director of Kohl's Football Kicking and Punting Camps.
The company holds about 150 events per year between camps and private lessons. And in Kohl’s opinion, it provides the kind of coaching necessary for young players to succeed.
“I would argue that having the baseline coaching points are essential. Absolutely essential,” Kohl said. “I understand that narrative that these guys just kind of pick it up one day, soccer player, and that does happen some time in high school. But at the Division I and NFL level, it’s so competitive and so much precision is required, I just don’t know how you can be self-taught and truly be at the top of your game.”
All three kickers selected in the 2017 NFL draft — Jake Elliott, Zane Gonzalez, and Harrison Butker — participated in a Kohl’s kicking camp, as well as more than half of the current kickers in the NFL.
For kids that aren’t lucky enough to have a coach like Wolf or Sailer show up at practice, camps can be the only way to get that “essential” baseline knowledge.
“You have to go and seek it out,” Forbath said. “I don’t think a lot of high school coaches are teaching their kids the right things, but if you go to the right kicking camps — they’re all over the place now — it can be taught if you want to learn.
“There comes a point where you need to hear some advice from someone who knows what they’re talking about.”
The rise of kicking camps like Kohl’s may be the biggest reason for increasingly accurate kickers in the professional ranks.
“The NFL is making it harder,” Kohl said. “It started with goal posts at the goal line. Then they moved them back 10 yards. Then they narrowed the goal posts. Then they took away the tee. They kept making it harder and harder on these guys, and the percentages are going up and up and up.”
As an increasing number of well-trained young talents infiltrate the NFL, the precision of kickers has risen. But when a skill requires a camp to provide the skills necessary to succeed, many potential athletes will fall through the cracks. Kohl says he charges $300 to $350 to come to his camp, a price not everyone may be willing (or able) to pay.
Those in the NFL learned those baseline skills at some point and honed them through years of reps. But just one team stands above the rest in providing coaching for kickers.
“The reality is it’s difficult to get in-person coaching for the technical aspects of kicking,” Hauschka said. “There’s one team that does that that I’m aware of right now and that’s Baltimore.”
Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens has been one of the NFL’s best kickers for a while now. He made 38 of 39 field goals in 2016, including all 10 of his tries from 50 yards or longer.
Every team has a special teams coordinator, but the Ravens additionally employ a specialist coach, Randy Brown. John Harbaugh is a former special teams coordinator who brought in Brown during his first year as the team’s head coach in 2008.
“You could argue that the job Randy Brown has done is incredible because of the success that Justin has had,” Kohl said. “It’s kind of like the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick deal. Who’s good because of who? I don’t know the answer to that, but whatever they’re doing they should continue to do because it’s definitely working.”
So why haven’t other franchises copied Baltimore?
“There’s a lot of people that I think are capable [of coaching kickers],” Kohl said. “It’s just a matter of, you don’t realize how much you need the coaching until stuff isn’t working. It’s almost like a lot of times people need to get burned before they appreciate all that goes into it.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got burned badly when they spent a second-round pick on Roberto Aguayo, who was released before he even played in a second season. Technical flaws appeared to play a part in his struggles.
That’s not to say that Ravens kickers are the only ones getting good coaching. While other teams have special teams coordinators without experience kicking footballs, many, like Priefer, have spent enough time around the position to know what to look for.
“That doesn’t mean they even necessarily coach or talk to their kickers much,” Kohl said. “Smart coaches understand their capacity to coach.”
In many ways kicking a football is similar to swinging a golf club. It’s an asymmetrical movement that balances technique and rhythm. It takes a while to tear down and reconstruct a golf swing, and few kickers want to change much about their motion during the season for the same reason.
“[Golf] is probably ahead of kicking as far as the type of instruction the players are getting and the quality of it and when they’re doing the instruction and how the players are using the instruction,” Hauschka said. “I think that’s a better model and realistic model. I think kickers are just going to keep getting better.”
For now, kicking remains a striking inefficiency in the NFL’s coaching ranks that seemingly just one team is taking advantage of.
“I think that’s something that in the future there will be more coaches that are brought into teams to help out with the technical side of it,” Hauschka said. “But I think most of us are going on our own and trying to do the best we can.”