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(W)Here’s the Kicker

Is the era of giving a HS kicker a scholarship going the way of the dodo? And should it be?

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Washington’s special teams will have a new look when we get to the 2023 season. Kicker Peyton Henry is finally set to run out of eligibility following this season (his 6th at UW) while Idaho State transfer punter Kevin Ryan is also in his final year. With those two as the only scholarships specialists on the roster it presumably means that the Huskies will be in the market for one of each. Unless they decide to go Presbyterian (the college not the religion) and go for it on every 4th down thus eliminating the need for a punter.

So far though you’ll notice a curious thing if you decide to scroll through the offers page for Washington on 247 Sports. There’s not a single one for a kicker or a punter. Given that finding one of each is a necessity, you would think there would be at least one offer extended to the top available high school player at each position. And yet there’s none.

There are several good reasons. The first is that trying to identify high school talent and translate it to the college game is extremely difficult.

Let’s take the kicker position. PATs in college are still done from the 2-yard line and just about every kicker even under consideration for high major football is going to make 98% of them barring the absolute worst weather conditions. That means it’s all about the field goals and the kickoffs. There’s no question that kickoffs are important. But each individual attempt is fairly negligible. Let’s say one team allows the average return to come out to the 30-yard line rather than a touchback and the 25-yard line every single time. That difference in 5 yards is going to be just a fraction of a point on each drive. The more times you kick off the more points it costs your defense but if you’re having to kick off 10 times in a game it means your offense has scored at least 9 times so you probably aren’t as likely to need the points.

Thus, for most fans at least it comes down to field goals. Over the course of his career Peyton Henry has averaged about 1.3 field goal attempts per game. Now obviously the better your kicker is the more likely you are to use them rather than go for it because the likelihood of getting 3 points goes up with a better kicker. Still, even for most teams you rarely attempt more than 2 field goals per game on average. Imagine trying to judge how good a quarterback is based on 2 throws per game? Small sample sizes make it rough. And this is to judge whether college kickers are good. Now go try to do it based on high school stats and camps that occur outside of game situations.

Does it make sense to go after the “elite of the elite” for kickers coming out of high school? Do those players perform better than lower rated kickers?

In the 2017-20 classes there were 22 kickers that made at least 2nd team all-conference on a power conference team or have gotten drafted. Let’s run through each of them to figure out whether going after a top-ranked kicker is the way to see long-term success. The 3 numbers after each player’s name are their rankings via Chris Sailer, Kohl’s, and 247 Sports.

2017- Peyton Henry, Washington (43, 13, NR)

2017- Blake Mazza, Washington State/SMU (12, 41, NR)

2017- Anders Carlson, Auburn (NR, 1, 4)

2017- Lucas Havrisik, Arizona (4, NR, 26)

2017- Noah Ruggles, North Carolina/Ohio State (24, 5, 13)

2017- Andre Szmyt, Syracuse (NR, NR, NR)

2017- Brent Cimaglia, Tennessee/Georgia Tech (7, 6, 6)

2018- Gabe Brkic-,Oklahoma (NR, 7, NR)

2018- BT Potter, Clemson (1, 8, 10)

2018- Evan McPherson, Florida (2, 1, 1)

2018- Justin Rohrwasser, Marshall (NR, NR, NR)

2018- Cameron Dicker, Texas (15, 13, 5)

2018- Chris Dunn, North Carolina State (7, NR, 15)

2018- Jadon Redding, Utah (NR, 36, NR)

2018- Nicolas Sciba, Wake Forest (22, 22, 8)

2018- Jake Moody, Michigan (NR, 14, NR)

2019- Camden Lewis, Oregon (6, 10, 6)

2019- Cade York, LSU (NR, 2, 7)

2019- Jonathan Garibay, Texas Tech (NR, NR, NR)

2019- Dean Janikowski, Washington State (14, 33, NR)

2020- Parker Lewis, USC/Ohio State (NR, 3, 3)

That makes 8 of the players that were rated in the top-five in at least one of those recruiting services. It grows to 11 if you expand the sample to find anyone that was in the top-ten for any of them. Given that there were 22 kickers in the sample we can say that 50% of P5 all-conference/draftee kickers were a top-ten level player coming out of high school. That seems like a fairly solid number. But then again there’s so little consistency between those 3 ranking sets. In the class of 2017 you had 19 players that were top-ten in one of the rankings.

How does that compare to a position that we should theoretically be better at scouting? Let’s look at quarterback which is similar to kicker in that you only play one of them unless there’s an injury or a benching due to poor performance. Using that same criteria as above there were 29 quarterbacks from the 2017-20 classes to either make 2nd team all-conference or get drafted. During that time 247 used the split of Pro-style and Dual-threat quarterbacks. Taking the top-ten for each in the composite is pretty close to the 19 that ends up being if they were top-ten in one of the kicker rankings.

Including that data set shows that 18 out of the 29 QBs to see high level success were a top-ten level player either as PRO or DUAL coming out of high school. That’s 60% for quarterbacks which is higher than the 50% we saw for kickers but not by quite as much as I might have thought.

There is of course one crucial difference between kickers and quarterbacks (actually, more than one but stay with me). There’s no way in hell you’re getting a top-ten quarterback to walk-on even at a power conference school. For kickers that’s still a not uncommon occurrence. For Washington we have to scroll all the way back to...February to see this. The Huskies picked up Grady Gross as a preferred walk-on. He was rated #3 overall by Kohl’s and #10 overall by Chris Sailer for the class of 2022. There was no 247-only ranking for Gross but the above history shows it’s not uncommon for someone viewed as elite by one service to go unranked in another.

And Gross isn’t a gross exception by any means (sorry). Maybe the #3 rated kicker in one of those ranking sets walking on isn’t super common but approximately 20% of Kohl’s top-ten rated kickers end up as a PWO at a major program. Being viewed as elite as a kicker isn’t as important as it is at QB (5/22 top-three for kicker versus 12/29 at QB). The difference between the #5 rated kicker and the #12 rated kicker on average isn’t that great. So if you can get the #12 rated one on campus for a year to find out whether he looks like he can be a starter before having to make the scholarship decision, why wouldn’t you just do that?

Last year the top ranked kicker in 2 of those 3 scouting services was from the state of Washington (albeit from far eastern Washington). Given the way in-state recruiting has gone lately it’s likely even if UW had made him a priority he would’ve left. But let’s just say that Washington if they’d put in the effort and given him a scholarship offer would’ve been guaranteed to get the consensus top guy in the country. He could’ve redshirted this year with Peyton Henry in his final season then taken over next year as the clear succession plan. Is the cost of occupying an extra scholarship and limiting your flexibility worth the upgrade from that player versus getting Grady Gross as a walk-on? In the transfer portal era I’m not sure that it is.

What if Jaxson Kirkland didn’t have a scholarship available to him to come back because Washington was holding 2 kickers this year? What if LB Kris Moll couldn’t have been late reinforcements to the linebacking corps because of that decision? Unlikely maybe that it would’ve come to that but opportunity cost is a real thing.

On top of all of that is the transfer portal. This offseason Washington was dealing with the loss of punter Race Porter who was coming off a spectacular season as un-ironically maybe one of UW’s best 5 players. The former walk-on (see) waited his turn and then was placed on scholarship. Jimmy Lake had a succession plan in place as Triston Brown was also given a scholarship and redshirted last fall to be ready to take over. It was a case of scholarship overlap for a specialist but in the post-COVID season that didn’t make a difference. Then we found out Brown left the team for an undisclosed reason leaving UW in a lurch. Fortunately the transfer portal is right there and DeBoer picked up Kevin Ryan from Idaho State. We’ve yet to see Ryan in action but his history suggests he’ll be a perfectly serviceable punter option.

Part of the unreliability of kicker/punter rankings means that there are going to be specialists who end up at FCS or lower level FBS teams that are quite good. Every year there are going to be a decent number willing to enter the portal to try to jump to a high level FBS team. Why risk giving a scholarship to a kicker out of high school and then have him get on campus to discover he’s not what you thought he would be? If that happens at cornerback then oh well, you can put him on special teams duty and use him as depth in practice. If it happens at kicker you have to use up a scholarship you didn’t plan on using to patch over the evaluation mistake.

Is it a cynical approach? Sure. But it makes so much more sense to me for every other year or so to bring in the most highly rated kicker and/or punter you can as a preferred walk-on. Let them know that if they win the job then they’ll be put on scholarship. In the meantime you can use the transfer portal to get a reliable senior ahead of them. If the PWO doesn’t work out then you go for it again next year. If through what you’ve seen in practice the PWO has what it takes then go ahead and put them on scholarship, don’t bring in the next transfer, and you’ve got your kicker/punter spot solved for the next few years.

Maybe suddenly a senior kicker at O’Dea or Eastside Catholic this fall shows up and starts nailing 50-yard field goals and DeBoer offers him a scholarship. It’s possible. More likely though it seems DeBoer understands that he can check out Grady Gross all fall and if Gross looks like a future contributor then he can give him Henry’s scholarship after the season. If it’s not clear that Gross is ready then expect a Woof on twitter that becomes a letdown after you find out it’s an FCS transfer kicker (that’s on you for not being excited about FCS kickers). Should that be DeBoer’s plan then he’ll get a big thumbs up from yours truly.