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Football Relies on Kickers in Tight Spots

Shoot and Boot
Timothy R. O'Meara

Kicker Jake McIntyre nails an extra point in the matchup against Dartmouth. The sophomore has hit 80 percent of his attempts so far this season.

Grab and Hold
The duo of junior defensive tackle Richie Ryan (50) and senior linebacker Alex White (38) lock down Columbia senior quarterback Anders Hill. In the final moments of the game, the Crimson held off a potential game-tying play from the Lions as Hill's pass went incomplete.
Walk by Harvard Stadium any given fall afternoon and you’ll see a well-oiled machine. Groups of players clash and separate at orderly intervals, running through defensive drills and offensive schemes over and over again. One unit wears crimson practice jerseys, while the other dons white. The meticulousness of practice extends to the division of time itself—25 periods, five minutes apiece.

Three rogue crimson jerseys, however, move opposite the current. They weave across the field, appearing intent upon achieving some goal, but at the same time entirely relaxed, unbothered by the commotion of the rest of practice.

This trio is made up of senior Zach Schmid (punter), senior Kenny Smart (kickoff specialist), and sophomore Jake McIntyre (placekicker). While others toil under the close watch of head coach Tim Murphy’s legion of assistants, the kickers send balls across the field at will, diligently repeating and tweaking their mechanics.

“We’ve got a tight-knit group,” Smart said. “It’s usually a small group, so we’re always close.”

One may think their radically different purpose on the team may set them apart from the other units. But besides the self-coached practice routine, the kicking group meshes with the rest of the team both on and off the field.

“All my roommates are on the football team,” Smart said. “All my best friends are on the team, so I definitely don’t feel like an outsider or anything. We’re with the corners doing all the sprints and stuff [during winter workouts], so that’s always fun.”

“I think the guys on the team really embrace us, especially when we’re doing well,” added Schmid with a laugh. “They encourage us to do well, and I feel like we’re any other part of the team.”

Whether or not they are doing well, the kickers’ role is integral to the Crimson’s success.

Placekickers are generally responsible for scoring the most points of any player on the team—this year, McIntyre paces Harvard with 47. Punters are relied upon to pin the opposing offense deep in its own end. Kickoff specialists must ensure that returners are in the worst position possible to break off a long run.

The on-field importance of the kickers and punters cannot be overstated, but their contributions to the team dynamic continue long after the pads come off. For instance, the uncontested best nickname on the team is “Fat Punter”—Schmid clocks in at 6’0” and 230 pounds.

“This summer was incredibly difficult,” Schmid said. “I did investment banking, so I gained about 15 pounds just sitting at a desk. It was a little bit difficult to keep the weight off, so I really have epitomized the Fat Punter thing this year.”

Another unique aspect of being a collegiate kicker is the recruiting process. While scouts and coaches travel thousands of miles to see high school quarterbacks and wide receivers, they do not log the same legwork for kickers. Instead, prospective kickers send in game and practice film early on, and schools will hold kicking camps over the summer.

The camp is a testing ground not only of the kickers’ physical abilities, but also of their mental makeups and personalities. Schmid had to tough his out while dealing with a 103-degree fever.

“At any position, and certainly at the kicking specialist position, a lot of it, quite frankly, is between the ears,” Murphy said. “You try to get them to our kicking camp as an opportunity to see who they are as people, to try to put a little pressure on them.”

The mental strength of kickers is oft-discussed, from the youth leagues on up to the NFL. Playing these positions takes intense focus in high-stress situations, so the Crimson’s kicking group opts for a calm, relaxed approach.

“I’m certainly not listening to heavy metal or hardcore EDM,” Schmid said. “I try to get the energy of the team within myself, but I try not to let it go too much into my head. That’s when I’m hitting my best punts. I do a lot of yoga in the offseason, so I try to keep that sort of stuff in my punting.”

Before getting an initial taste of this pressure at a kicking camp, these three had to get their start in football somewhere else. Each of them began as soccer players and gradually switched over to football.

“In high school I’d come over at the end of soccer practice and kick a couple field goals,” Smart said. “I was trying to go to college for both, and football just gave me a lot better opportunities, so I switched over and stuck with that.”

Schmid has a similar story. He initially took after his father, who played college soccer, but as he continued to grow, he developed an appetite for contact. However, concussions eventually precluded him from smash-mouth play at defensive end and linebacker, so as a former soccer player he made the natural transition to punting.

Unable to practice kicking daily due to soccer commitments or without specialized coaches on their high school teams’ coaching staffs, the three turned to outside instruction. High school kickers often enlist the services of kicking specialists to learn and practice skills they could not acquire on their own.

Smart trained with Michael Husted, a kicker who spent nine seasons in the NFL as a member of the Buccaneers, Raiders, Redskins, and Chiefs. McIntyre worked with fellow Central Florida native Nick Fleming, a former University of Florida kicker.

“There’s a couple big names in the nation who go around and host all these camps and hire coaches, so usually you go through them to get yourself exposure,” Smart said. “But from a coaching standpoint to get technical skills, it’s usually trying to find somebody local.”

The lack of a coach extends even to Harvard’s staff.

“We spend a lot of time together, kind of leading ourselves,” Schmid said. “It’s one of the most technical and precise movements on the team, and we have to get better every week.”

Once it’s game time, the kickers do not always draw much notice. Kids who battle for position in the concrete bleachers to snag one of McIntyre’s extra points or field goals are probably pretending to be Justice Shelton-Mosley leaping for a high pass, not feigning McIntyre himself. However, despite their behind-the-scenes role, the kickers are crucial to both the team’s success and its camaraderie year after year.

—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at jack.stockless@thecrimson.com.

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