Caleb Shudak, Keith Duncan proving worthy of being Iowa's kicker. Who will get the call?
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The biggest applause at Saturday’s scrimmage went to the smallest players on Iowa’s roster.
Thirteen times Caleb Shudak and Keith Duncan trotted onto the Kinnick Stadium turf to attempt field goals. Thirteen times the football split the uprights.
After each, the fans reacted as if their concerns about who will replace Miguel Recinos this season were alleviated.
It’s not that simple, of course.
But it’s a good sign for the Hawkeyes that Shudak and Duncan are making this a difficult decision for the coaches.
“I don’t want to over-talk that one,” head coach Kirk Ferentz joked after the Kids Day scrimmage when a reporter pointed out his kickers had a perfect afternoon. “That might have been the most impressive thing today. And that’s probably indicative of the way they’ve been practicing so far. They had their ups and downs in the spring but really have been focused, concentrating. But it will be interesting to see how it goes. Maybe both of them will help us.”
Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods had hinted the same thing at Iowa’s Aug. 9 media day: That Shudak and Duncan could both be of use this season.
“I think both of them have the leg strength. Both of them have the accuracy. Both of them have the competitiveness, the drive, the desire, everything you’re looking for in a kicker,” Woods said.
Another thing Shudak and Duncan share? Both have changed their uniform numbers this summer.
Shudak went from No. 94 to 10. Perhaps he was tired of being confused for hulking defensive end A.J. Epenesa. At 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, Shudak now shares a number with running back Mekhi Sargent, who is generously listed at 5-9.
Duncan switched back to the No. 3 he wore as a true freshman three seasons ago. That was the year he won the starting job from Recinos, making 9 of 11 field goals and 38 of 39 extra points. He hit a 33-yard game-winner against Michigan.
Recinos got the starting job the next two seasons and held it so well that Duncan hasn’t attempted a kick in a game since.
Duncan had been wearing No. 1. Three is certainly a great number for a kicker, though.
“I wasn’t really focused on where I was depth chart-wise. I was just focused on improving my game,” Duncan said last week. “It could be a misconception, like, ‘Oh, you started this year and then you fell off. What happened?’ It was a really good learning experience for me and I grew tremendously as a kicker.”
Duncan, at 5-10, 180 pounds, admitted his leg strength wasn’t what was needed during his freshman season. His long field goal was 41 yards.
In practice Aug. 9, he said he and Shudak each easily hit from 52 yards. On Kids Day, they each made a 50-yarder.
Both say 56 yards is about the limit of their range.
Shudak came to the Hawkeyes from Council Bluffs Lewis Central with the reputation of having plenty of leg strength. His father, Jeff, was a place-kicker at Iowa State. That was a tremendous help to him growing up, Caleb said.
“Everything from stance, mindset, kickoffs, every step along the way I learned from the ground up with him,” Caleb Shudak said.
“It’s fun to watch (highlight clips of his father). We’re kind of similar but you definitely can tell that kicking has advanced a little bit since his time.”
Shudak’s Iowa career consists of one successful extra point, last season in a blowout win over Illinois. But the junior’s time may be now. He was the first kicker used in Saturday’s scrimmage and got the call to boot a 45-yarder during a simulated last-second scoring drive.
Duncan and Shudak are close friends. They play golf together. They play ping-pong against each other. Those battles also go back-and-forth, Duncan said.
Much like this summer’s kicking competition. Both expect it to last all the way to the season-opener Aug. 31 vs. Miami of Ohio. Or it could linger into the season, with each getting a chance to prove they can make a kick against a live opponent in a full stadium under varying conditions.
“It’s awesome to get here and everyone has a fair shot,” said Duncan, who played high school football in North Carolina. “The best kicker should win. That’s kind of how it is. No politics involved.
“Once you realize that your competition will make you better, then you guys can both increase your game. There’s no reason to heckle against each other, wish something bad upon each other. Because you will both go in the right direction and it will help the team eventually.”
Woods said he will base his decision on which kicker shows the most consistency.
“I don’t think you ever get used to it, but the added pressure simulates the game, which is ideal,” Shudak said of constantly having to prove himself in practices.
“The mental part is more important. Just being able to have a miss and be able to learn from it and say, ‘I know what I did wrong and I’m not going to do that again. And I’m going to make the next one.’”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.