After six years of working on his craft, FIU kicker Austin Taylor had put himself in position to realize his goal of kicking at the college level.
But it took an additional two weeks of waiting — of sitting on the bench — before playing time became a reality. He took the field as FIU’s starting kicker last Saturday against Bethune-Cookman.
“It was pretty exciting — my first college game starting,” said Taylor, the first true freshman to start at kicker in FIU’s 12-year program history. “It was really cool. It’s what I’ve been waiting for.”
In FIU’s first two games, losses to Maryland and UCF, redshirt freshman Sergio Sroka handled the kicking duties for the Panthers. Taylor, however, impressed the coaching staff enough in week three to win the starting job in a competition that special teams coordinator Kevin Wolthausen said is still ongoing.
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“Through the course of last week, [Taylor] was the one that showed he was in the best situation and had the best opportunity to do it at that time,” Wolthausen said after practice Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean that it’s a permanent thing or temporary thing. It’s just day-to-day and they keep going.”
The coaching staff will decide which kicker will start Saturday against Louisville sometime later this week.
The entire team is young and in a period of development, and the special teams units are no exception. Cornerback Richard Leonard, the primary kick and punt return option entering the season, will not play this season because of academic issues, leaving Sam Miller, who returned 12 combined kicks and punts last year, in charge of full-time return duty. The only returning player who entered the year with a college punt was quarterback Jake Medlock. So having a kicking battle between two freshman is somewhat fitting.
“You’ve got a bunch of guys — on the coverage units or the protection units or return units — that haven’t done it either, so it’s an ongoing experience for them,” Wolthausen said.
The inexperience at kicker makes the assessing talent difficult for the coaching staff and may be responsible for the switch to Taylor, with more change possible in the future.
“They’ve all bought in, but nobody is established from the standpoint of having a body of works that shows what they’ve done — no veteran guys,” Wolthausen said. “So all you rely on is practice performance.”
Sroka made one of his two field goal attempts this season, converting from 32 yards and missing from 34, and made his only extra-point attempt. Taylor didn’t attempt a field goal last week against the Wildcats and had one of his two extra-point attempts blocked, a kick that Wolthausen said was too low for his liking.
“I liked the fact that after every one of [Taylor’s] kicks, he knew exactly how to try to correct it. It’s all correctable things,” Wolthausen said. “He’s a fairly strong personality. He doesn’t let a whole lot of stuff bother him, which I think — as a kicker, as a corner, as a quarterback — you’ve got to have some of that, because you’re the one exposed.
“If you miss a kick, it may be someone else’s fault, but if you miss it, it’s on you. So you’ve got to look for the guy with the right personality, who can handle the situation.”
While the coaching staff has little other than practice repetitions on which to judge Taylor and Sroka, the permanent starter might very well be decided by who can perform under real-game pressure. Wolthausen compared the performance pressure to that which a golfer faces.
“When you go to the practice range, you’ve got no worries — you’ve got a nice swing, you’re hitting the heck out of the ball. But then there’s that one time that it counts. Then what? That’s the learning process, I think, for the young guys.”