Leistikow: Inside Iowa's congenial, crucial kicking competition
IOWA CITY, Ia. — With one sweeping motion of his right leg, 18-year-old walk-on Keith Duncan was about to — one way or another — go down in Hawkeye football history.
Make the 33-yard field goal from between the Kinnick Stadium hash marks, and be the guy who delivered a stunning upset of 9-0 Michigan.
Miss it, and be forever known as the guy who blew it.
You know what happened.
Duncan knew what happened as soon as the ball left his foot.
Well, he was pretty sure what happened. The ball drifted a bit to the right.
“It’s funny, I looked up and I’m like, ‘Where’s the ball?’ Because the lights were in my eyes,” Duncan says. “Then I saw it hit the net, and I’m like, ‘Oh, sweet, it went in.’”
How sweet it was on the night of Nov. 12, 2016: Iowa 14, No. 3 Michigan 13.
Fans stormed the field, an upset of a 24-point favorite that sent shock waves through college football — and the 10 million ABC viewers who were watching Iowa’s final drive — complete.
Duncan was a hero.
Miguel Recinos, meanwhile, was on the sidelines in relative obscurity.
“I had complete faith (Duncan) could do it,” he says.
Recinos could’ve felt a little bitter, wishing that would've been him being hoisted onto teammates’ shoulders and celebrated by 70,000 ecstatic fans.
Instead, Recinos did something a good friend would do. He served as Duncan’s Iowa City chaperone on a night worth celebrating.
“I tried to make sure he didn’t have a little too much fun,” Recinos quips.
Without blocking and tackling requirements, kickers naturally spend a lot of time together in practice. But they don't have to get along.
It was Recinos, entering his third year in the program, who helped welcome Duncan to campus one summer ago.
“Basically I tried to help him out as much as I was capable,” Recinos says. “I think he was grateful for that, and as time has gone on, our relationship has evolved.”
They competed for the place-kicking job last fall, and what started as a four-way race headed by Recinos and Mick Ellis was won by Duncan, the unknown walk-on from Weddington, N.C.
“Everything kind of happened so quickly,” Duncan recalls. “… I just went out there and tried to make as many kicks as possible.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz said a year ago that he liked how Duncan handled himself in clutch situations in practice. He used "unflappable" to describe the 5-foot-11, 165-pound walk-on.
Duncan had a solid season as the “short” field-goal guy (45 yards and in) — 9-for-11 with a long of 41 yards, and 38-for-39 on PATs. Recinos was the “long” guy — but only had three attempts, making one (from 47 yards) just before halftime vs. Wisconsin.
Fast forward to today. The two remain friends — and in a tight battle again to win Iowa’s place-kicker job.
Duncan's been adding offseason muscle; he's up to a listed 173 (still the lightest player on the roster).
“I joke with everyone," Duncan, now 19, says, "I’m waiting to hit puberty.”
Both are still walk-ons.
Both want to be the guy, of course.
During Iowa’s open practice Saturday, the shoe appeared to be on the other right foot.
Having what Ferentz terms his "best day as a Hawkeye,” Recinos was a booming 11-for-11 on field goals in live situations; Duncan missed four of his last five attempts.
That led me to a conversation this week with Nate Kaeding, the greatest placekicker in Hawkeye history.
The Iowa City native and 2003 Lou Groza Award winner says the situations Recinos was put in a year ago are incredibly difficult. Getting one shot at a 50-yard(ish) field goal once every three or four games makes it impossible to get into any kind of rhythm. (Kaeding should know; he holds Iowa’s record for consecutive field goals made with 22 and enjoyed a nine-year NFL career.)
So, perhaps this is the year strong-legged Recinos (6-1, 192), a redshirt junior, takes hold of all aspects of the place-kicking job. He seems assured to handle kickoffs, with Ron Coluzzi gone.
But there’s no doubting Duncan has a clutch gene, and he showed it when things counted the most.
Like the quarterback race, it'll be a neck-and-neck decision. But an important one.
With Iowa's ball-control, low-scoring style, it maxes out when it has a trusted kicking game. The Hawkeyes attempted only 14 field goals last year, second-fewest in the Big Ten Conference.
When Iowa has its best teams, its place-kicker is usually knocking balls through the uprights like a PGA Tour pro sinks 3-foot putts.
Each of Ferentz's national top-10 teams featured active, productive kickers:
In 2002, Kaeding was 21-for-24 on field goals.
In 2003, Kaeding was 20-for-21.
In 2004, Kyle Schlicher was 21-for-26.
In 2009, Daniel Murray was 19-for-26.
In 2015, Marshall Koehn was 16-for-20.
Regardless of how it plays out — the competition is ongoing, Ferentz said Saturday — it’s a safe bet Duncan and Recinos will remain supportive friends.
“We both have a really healthy respect for each other,” Recinos says. “We’re both hard-working guys who want our team to succeed and do our part. The competition is very healthy.
“I think both of us are looking for that relationship to continue, no matter who wins the job.”
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.