'Couldn't imagine a different journey': Inside Caleb Shudak's circuitous path to become Iowa football's starting kicker
IOWA CITY, Ia. — With each swing of his powerful right leg, Caleb Shudak sends a wonderful lesson on patience and perseverance barreling through the uprights.
Most college football players wouldn't be around to pounce on this opportunity six years in the making. A half decade-plus without true starting status is a recipe for the transfer portal — if not retirement altogether — and Shudak certainly toyed with both.
But this Iowa kicker envisioned something greater, something beyond the realm of reasonable at times. With less than three weeks until the Hawkeyes' Sept. 4 season-opener against Indiana, Shudak seemingly has what he's been searching for: a chance to add to Iowa's lofty special-teams standard one field goal attempt at a time.
"Couldn't imagine a different journey," Shudak said during media day last week. "I'm incredibly thankful for everything I've gone through."
As beloved as Keith Duncan was, from freshman sensation to upperclassman All-American with a bench-warming stop in between, Shudak's circuitous path might be even more improbable. A peek back to his early Iowa years reveals why.
He arrived in 2016 with decent walk-on credentials, having earned second-team all-state honors as a four-position senior at Lewis Central. Along with time spent at running back, linebacker and defensive back, Shudak had developed into a decent kicker, going 5-for-8 on field goals, 27-for-27 on PATs and 31-for-34 on touchbacks in 2015. He finished his prep tenure with a 66% field-goal conversion rate on 35 attempts.
Shudak figured that'd be enough for some type of role at Iowa, yet what followed were three empty seasons of contemplation and exasperation. No action in 2016. No action in 2017. One PAT attempt to end a 63-0 stomping in 2018. The lone lingering hope was that all-conference honorable mention kicker Miguel Recinos was graduating after 2018.
Perhaps Shudak's time had finally arrived for a breakthrough ...
No. Not yet.
A tight battle between Duncan and Shudak throughout 2019 fall camp finally swung the former's way, with Duncan handling field goals and PATs while Shudak manned kickoffs only.
It wasn't a total lost season — Shudak averaged 58.2 yards on 75 kickoffs with 31 touchbacks — but as Duncan reached folk hero status with clutch boots and one unforgettable smooch, riding this out seemed like a futile endeavor. Duncan would be back in 2020. Shudak didn't see an opening any time soon.
As the 2019 campaign wound down, the 5-foot-8 Council Bluffs native did what many would've done months, even years, earlier. Shudak officially entered the transfer portal on Nov. 13, 2019, three days before the Hawkeyes pulled a top-10 upset over unbeaten Minnesota. Shudak was set to head elsewhere as a graduate transfer, trading Iowa comfort for a shot at substantial playing time.
"He really just wanted to become the best kicker he could be," said Iowa long snapper Austin Spiewak, who's been Shudak's roommate since both arrived on campus in 2016. "It wasn't like he was turning his back on this program or anything. He really just wanted the opportunity to kick. And Keith was obviously also a really good kicker.
"We had plenty of conversations about that, and I was supporting him no matter what he chose to do. That was his decision."
The two months that followed proved more significant than Shudak could've ever fathomed. Options were considered. Outcomes of a difficult choice swayed in the wind, like a field goal fluttering toward the upright after several seconds of hope. Shudak flip-flopped on this move, unsure if leaving four years of cemented friends and teammates was worth an unguaranteed stab at on-field success.
Shortly after the calendar flipped, Shudak had a decision.
On Jan. 24, 2020, he withdrew from the transfer portal.
"I just realized this is where I want to be," Shudak said. "My best friends are here. It became a no-brainer just to stay here.
"Initially it was tough knowing I'm going to have to sit here and wait behind Keith, an All-American and what should've been a Lou Groza year for him (in 2019). He's such a great kicker that I knew I'd have to wait (through 2020). But that faded eventually. Keith is one of my best friends, and I've just been surrounded by so many amazing people that the patience was worth it. It grew into one of those appreciative things."
Given the COVID-19 chaos that arrived shortly after withdrawing from the transfer portal, things like kicking competitions and playing time became largely trivial. Like the rest of the Hawkeyes, Shudak was simply happy to have a 2020 Iowa football season after the Big Ten took its schools through an emotional roller-coaster spanning several weeks. He again handled kickoff duties as Duncan never relinquished his field-goal role.
It wasn't Shudak's desired spot, but the decision to continue his Iowa grind heavily resonated with Kirk Ferentz and special teams coach LeVar Woods. At a position where outside perception can fluctuate tremendously — kicking legend one week, despised man on campus the next — Shudak's obstacle-filled career has created the perfect mindset to finally handle first-team opportunities.
"Someone who's been through adversity and knows the ups and downs is one of the trademarks of a Hawkeye specialist," Woods said. "You're able to handle the success when you make the game-winner and then move on when you miss the next one. We have that in Caleb and all the guys in the (special teams) room."
So what's on tap for Shudak's final act?
Plenty of chances for stardom in all likelihood. It could come quickly, too, with Iowa opening against back-to-back ranked foes in Indiana and Iowa State. An offense still trying to fully find its aerial footing may need to rely on Shudak plenty this fall.
Still standing five years later, Shudak has already bucked college football's instant gratification trend. Now comes time for his magic moment.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.