The most fungible position in football might have seen the least competition in FIUs training camp.
Kicker Jack Griffin came into camp after being a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, first team All-Sun Belt, seventh in the nation in field goals per game and racking up 102 points. And Griffin came in to camp longer in time spent and distance.
I think Ive gotten a lot stronger, Griffin said. Taking more field goals, taking a lot more reps. I think Im a lot more accurate. Ive become a better student of the game, the mental aspect of it.
Griffin estimates hes gained 10 yards on his field goals through both being stronger and the confidence that comes with that You can have the leg, but if you dont have the confidence, you wont be able to use it. In practice, he has hit a few from 53 yards, beating his career long of 50, which he made against Middle Tennessee at home in 2010.
And nobody doubts Griffins ability to kick under pressure. He hit the game-winner in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl two years ago as time ran out and nailed the tying and overtime game-winning kicks against Troy last season.
He has hit some big ones the last couple of years and the ones hes missed are ones he could easily get, FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. He has the same expectation for himself that we have for him to be perfect.
Kickoffs kept Griffin as a good kicker the past two seasons instead of being truly elite. Not the rare (for a kicker) skill of tackling, which Griffin had five solo tackles and two assists last year. But perhaps he wouldnt have had to make those tackles if his kickoffs had been longer (average 60.5 yards) or higher.
This year, Griffin has been reaching the end zone regularly in practice and going to the corner inside the 5 when he has taken something off the kick.
He added muscle and power, hes developed in his core and lower body, Cristobal said. Its shown up in his kickoffs going to the back or out of the end zone. At the same time, hes got more lift on the ball where sometimes you dont want to kick the ball out of the end zone.
A rule change designed to reduce the number of kickoff returns actually turns the kickoff into one of the more strategic moves in the game. The NCAA moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, but touchbacks put the ball on the receiving teams 25 instead of the 20.
(Recall that kickoffs got moved back to the 30 to keep kickoff returns in the game after generations of youth soccer, kicking camps and weight rooms produced kickers who could bomb kickoffs into the end zone at will.)
A high kickoff toward the sideline inside the 10 or 5 not only gives the coverage team time to get on the scene with the sideline as an extra tackler, it forces the returner to make a decision: field it or let the ball bounce in hopes itll go out of bounds and incur a penalty.
If it bounces, but doesnt go out, often wackiness ensues thats rarely enjoyably comical for the receiving team.
Statistically, getting the ball at the 25 versus the 20, thats also pretty drastic change in terms of being able to score from there, Cristobal said. Those extra 5 yards are critical.