Leistikow: Here's why Iowa's kicker derby will play into the season

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Four placekickers enter. Who will exit from behind the closed gates at the Iowa football practice fields?

Sorry, Hawkeye fans: A singular answer to one of fall camp’s biggest questions probably isn’t coming soon.

Historically under Kirk Ferentz, when there’s a kicking competition, it usually spills into the season.

“There some positions that could go all the way through September,” the 18th-year coach affirmed during Wednesday’s Big Ten Network appearance. “You hope not, but you’ve got to let guys compete. The field-goal position comes to mind right away.”

In 2007, Austin Signor earned the first kick of the season over Daniel Murray, a PAT. He missed. The two rotated with mixed results until Murray emerged in October.

Mick Ellis made 7-of-7 PATs as a true freshman but missed his only field-goal attempt and lost the job in 2014 to Marshall Koehn. He redshirted last year and is back to compete for the starting spot again in 2016.

In 2008, you know Murray hit the game-winner to slay unbeaten Penn State. But it was Trent Mossbrucker who made and attempted more field goals that year in a back-and-forth battle.

In 2010, Murray began the season on the Lou Groza Award watch list but a hip flexor kept him off the field. Then Mossbrucker had a key PAT blocked at Arizona. Walk-on Mike Meyer took over for the next four years and became Iowa’s No. 2 all-time leading scorer.

In 2014, the job came open again. Mick Ellis, one of this year’s four combatants, missed his first (and only) field-goal attempt that season. Marshall Koehn won the job in Week 3.

“As a freshman, I was a kid who could kick the ball pretty straight most of the time,” Ellis said earlier this month. “Then you threw me into a hard situation, I was kind of … Eeehhhhhh.”

There it is. The mental side.

That’s why you don’t know what you've got until September.

All four guys in fall camp going for the job — Ellis, Miguel Recinos, Keith Duncan and Caleb Shudak — can kick a ball pretty far and pretty straight. That’s why they were invited to join a Big Ten Conference program.

But can they consistently do that amid game pressure and 70,000 fans? Anybody who says they know is lying.

Simulating those circumstances is “ultimately the trick,” said former San Diego Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, the Hawkeyes’ all-time leading scorer and 2003 Lou Groza winner. “And unfortunately for Hawk fans —  and I’m sure the coaches and the kickers here —  it’s impossible to do.”

Kaeding, now a father of four back in his native Iowa City, has worked with Meyer and Koehn on the mental edge of kicking. And he’s done the same with the current batch.

The key, he said, is being process-oriented — not results-oriented.

Once “what if I make” or “what if I miss” thoughts begin, the process can go haywire. Kaeding equated the approach to what Iowan Zach Johnson has done in golf to win the Masters and British Open.

Kaeding educates Iowa’s kickers about “a process you can replicate every single time, whether you’re kicking a 20-yard field goal in practice or a 57-yard field goal to beat Pittsburgh. It’s sort of the way to protect yourself from the craziness and the circumstances of the situation.”

For example, one step is finding a pre-determined spot after running onto the field.

“If you check off those seven or eight things in between when third down ends and fourth down starts,” Kaeding said, “… the result will take care of itself.”

Sounds great, right?

“A lot easier said than done,” Kaeding added.

So that’s where this competition is, in the hypothetical stage. But information is still coming in. Decisions have to be made.

Saturday’s Kids Day open practice, Ferentz said, was “a really good day” for the kickers, though there wasn't significant separation.

Recinos, the listed No. 1, misfired on his first two attempts but re-calibrated and converted his final six.

Ellis' contact and ball flight were excellent on his first six attempts. Then he badly hooked his seventh try and had his eighth partially blocked.

Duncan and Shudak, the walk-on freshmen with positive pedigrees, had up-and-down moments. After a bad first week of practice, Shudak settled down Saturday in front of 11,000-plus.

That’s how Rob Houghtlin was in the 1980s — shaky Monday through Friday, money on Saturday.

“Maybe he’s a gamer,” Ferentz said of Shudak. “That’s good.”

Friday night’s closed scrimmage will be the quartet's next test. Ferentz won't want a four-man rotation, so look for him to identify a top two entering the Sept. 3 opener against Miami of Ohio.

Given Ferentz's history, I'll predict Ellis and Recinos (redshirt sophomores with a tad of experience) each get Week 1 chances.

That’s the only way to really figure this out. May the best gameday man win.

And (deep breath): Brace yourself for a few hooks and duffs along the way.

“Hawk fans probably cringe at it a little bit, but those down moments early on can pay dividends down the road,” Kaeding said, “if the athlete approaches it the right way.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.