You may not have realized it at the time, as can happen when you are living through history, but from the 2004 season through the 2015 season, that 12 year period was the golden age of kickers for Rutgers football. That just happens to overlap with the most successful decade in program history overall. Jeremy Ito, San San Te, and Kyle Federico, in that order of service, each held the starting place kicker job all four years of their college careers. Ito made more field goals than any other Rutgers kicker in program history with 80 and is third all-time with a 72.1% field goal percentage. San San Te replaced Ito as a true freshman and ended up second all-time with 64 field goals made and finished 6th all-time with a 66.7% success rate. Kyle Federico replaced Te and held the job for four years as well, tying Kennan Starzell (1976-1979) with 46 made field goals for third most all-time and finished fourth all-time in field goal percentage at 69.7%.
Of the ten highest field goal totals in a single season in program history, Ito, nicknamed “the Judge” produced four of them and three of the top four all-time. Te produced two of his own and Federico had one. For top ten single season best field goal percentages, Ito produced three, Federico two and Te one.
Ito stands alone with six career field goals longer than 50 yards (53 yards was his career best), while Federico made one and Te didn’t have any. The longest field goal in Rutgers history by the way belongs to John Benestad, who made a 55 yarder against West Virginia in 1990.
Ito is the program’s all-time leading scorer with 400 points, Te is second with 339 and Federico is tied for fifth with Starzell with 261. You get the idea.
While Rutgers had decent success the past two seasons with David Bonagura (10-14 FG) and Andrew Harte (7-10 FG), head coach Chris Ash managed them conservatively, based on their range ability. The program attempted just seven kicks beyond 40 yards, making just two of them. For one of the worst offenses in college football, a lack of kicking game outside of close range certainly didn’t help matters.
The good news is that problem may become a thing of the past with sophomore Justin Davidovicz set to emerge as the starting placekicker this fall. After debuting last season exclusively with handling kickoff duties, Davidovicz is primed to handle field goals and PAT’s as well this fall. Head coach Chris Ash praised him at media day earlier this month.
“I think we have some really good specialists on our football team. Some guys who have done a great job in camp”, said Ash. “Justin Davidovicz has gone from just taking kickoffs to kickoffs, field goals and PAT’s. He’s done an excellent job so far in camp. Very strong leg. I have a lot of trust and faith in him and his ability to put points on the board.”
Davidovicz has entered camp having benefited from his kickoff role last season, giving him more confidence entering his second training camp at Rutgers. He told me at media day, “Last year I was able to get some game experience with kickoffs, which was awesome and definitely helped me to where I am now in terms of mental preparedness. I feel like I have more of it this training camp. I don’t get as worried. I’m not a freshman coming in with the jitters and all that. It’s been a good camp so far.”
He expects the experience from last year will help him once this season starts. “I think it was very helpful. I’m not going into my first game this season without any experience.” He emphasized, “game experience is big, especially with a specials position, because a lot of it is mental. We have maybe five or six plays a game and it’s very tough on the brain rather than the body. It’s really about the mental toughness.”
In regard to that aspect of his game, Davidovicz credits strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker for helping him develop in that area. “I think it’s great. Honestly, I love what he has done. I’ve always enjoyed lifting weights”, said Davidovicz. “Whatever he has me do, I like doing to 100 percent. The biggest thing with him for kickers, I’d say is the mental toughness. We’ve had the St. Valentine’s day lift, the brotherhood lift. Those are tough on the body, but it’s more of, are you willing to go through it and get through it with your brothers. That definitely helps as a kicker.”
Davidovicz also credits Parker with the physical gains he has made as well, saying “I don’t want to be seen as a kicker that just kicks. I take pride in earning respect from my teammates and working hard, being able to lift as much as them. I really take pride in that.” He added, “The coaches just showed our transformations from first year to second year. They put it up on a board in a team meeting and it was pretty cool. I got a lot of ooh’s and aah’s from my teammates.”
Toby Nienas has a dual role as an assistant coach, overseeing the outside linebackers and the specialists. In speaking with him about Davidovicz, he sees the gains he has made under Parker as well. “I think that Justin is an interesting guy. When you evaluated his high school film and when he came to camp, you saw a kid who really doesn’t fill out his shorts or his t-shirt”, commented Nienas. He went on to say, “when hits the ball though, it just takes off. You kind of scratch your head as to where he gets that. Now that I’ve been around him some, he is wrapped really, really tight. Underneath the shirt and shorts, it’s just straight muscle. I think the development that coach Parker has done with him and some changes that have occurred with his body have helped him increase his pop.”
As for the mental side of things, Nienas feels Davidovicz has made strides there as well. “Certainly something you want to get a feel for when you recruit a player. If a guy lacks confidence, it’s going to be pretty hard to build them into that at this level. You have to start with at least a base. The confidence part there is going to have to be earned by him. He has illustrated a maturity, a mental toughness, that you would want.”
In regard to Nienas, Davidovicz credits him with helping him become more consistent and efficient with the mechanics. “He is very, very smart and been through everything, so he knows exactly when to say what to us. When to work on form, how to relax yourself.” Davidovicz continued, “He always uses references. One of them was about an Asian Warrior who always said, “when you are in a time of distress, you will resort to what you are comfortable with.” So if your form is not at it’s best, you will resort to what you normally do. This summer I’ve been trying to change my form to fix it, because I’ve been rolling over my ankle trying to skip through and perfect my form. When I go into live situations, I still roll over occasionally, and he (Nienas) says I resort to it because that’s what I’m comfortable with. I haven’t broken through yet, but he has helped me a ton.”
Nienas said that the mental battle in perfecting the mechanics for a kicker is a constant battle and one that Davidovicz is embracing. “I think that he still has some things to do before we get to the season. He would even tell you that in needing to clean some things up. Mechanically with that position, it’s always a fight.” Nienas continued, “You get this part of it just right, and then something else starts to go away. It’s weird but that’s kind of how that position is. It takes time to get all of those little pieces where you want them. He is still working on that a little bit.”
The character of Davidovicz is a big reason for his progression so far per Nienas. “Justin is a really dedicated young person. You just know that by how he handles his academics and personal life, stuff like that. He will be ready (at the start of the season). He wants to be further along right now than he is, which is how you want a player to be. I’m pretty happy with most of the stuff that I’ve seen. Right now, we just need to clean up a couple little mechanical things because he is so powerful. You want make sure he is efficient with those movements, so he doesn’t end up injuring himself.”
One of the biggest challenges with any young kicker is learning to pace themselves. Nienas said that is a major focus for him in coaching Davidovicz and all of the specialists.
“I always worry about fatigue at that position. I have to do a better job moving forward now that we are closer to game time, making sure that the leg is popping.” He continued, “With that position, I think another thing that’s really hard is to keep it through the year. For them, it’s much more a marathon I think than with other positions. The exertion of the leg in September can have a direct impact on November. Nienas added their are challenges with that, saying “it’s hard to see that from September. I can’t tell you that I can always see it with clarity either. It’s something that you have to be very aware of. We have to conserve some of his energy now, so we still have good pop in November. In this league you are always going to play good people from beginning to end. They are always going to have dangerous return personnel. If you don’t have a good leg, you expose yourself to their returns. Some of those guys don’t need a lot of help.”
Davidovicz admitted it’s a transition he has learned to make as he has grown older, saying “When you are 14, 15, 16 years old kicking, you just go out there and bang balls all day and barely feel any soreness. Now as you get older and put more into each kick, I definitely have been getting more sore. With that comes recovery. Coach Parker has been great with that in teaching us on how to get a routine, with cold tubs, hot tubs, normatecs (compression device), everything. How to take care of your body with your routine. I definitely have been careful with overkicking and limiting reps.”
Nienas said that “one of the hardest things for a player to accept is that if they aren’t feeling good today, they have to stop.” He continued, “Come back and tomorrow hopefully feel better.”
Nienas cited the mindset of professional bicycle racers as something that he applies when working with specialists. “They fascinate me,” said Nienas. He continued, “they go on these big grand tours and do things you wouldn’t wish upon any human. And one thing that they constantly talk about is conserving energy to have it on the days that they need it. It’s not that they want to go fast every day. Some days, they just want to pace through the day, so that when the day comes that they want to go fast, they can. I think legs are similar in that you have to pace yourself so that you have that juice in November.” He emphasized, “fans remember wins in November. It’s a coaching adage but it’s the truth. That part of it is hard. To get a young person to embrace that in August, that what they are doing in August is going to have an effect 70 days from now, its hard for me to see, so you can’t blame them.”
In terms of Davidovicz’s career ceiling at Rutgers, he appears to have the talent, makeup, and drive to become one of the best kickers in program history. Aside from being consistent, his ability to make field goals from long range will help this team tremendously. Of course, now is the time for him to prove that he can. Ash was asked about his approach to using Davidovicz this season and said, “those are hard kicks. It takes a pretty special kicker to be consistent after 40 yards. To say we’re going to be a lot better, I’ll tell you know after we have some of those situations, because what happens in practice versus what happens in games are two different things.’’ Ash did emphasize that he has “complete faith in Justin Davidovicz to put points on the board when we need them” entering this season.
As far as Davidovicz’s potential from Nienas’ perspective, he thinks the sophomore kicker will be ready. “I feel good about Justin and I’m excited for him to get into the season.”
Again, its the mental side of things that Nienas thinks will help him in his expanded role this season. “Justin is very cognizant of what coach asks for. Sometimes like we all do, when you focus on something, you grip it so tight. It gets harder.” Nienas continued, “I think that he became more comfortable just trying to give coach what he wants (last season). Maybe not every single time out, but getting him that on gameday, where he feels good on gameday and he can perform on gameday. I’ve been very pleased with Justin in that respect.”
If Davidovicz can continue to perfect his craft and reach his full potential, Rutgers fans will be quite pleased with him as well. He has a bright future ahead and this season is his first opportunity to make his mark as a scoring threat at the college level. After two years with the kicking game not being much of a factor, Ash will likely be more willing to take chances from longer range with Davidovicz lining up to take the kick. If three years from now Davidovicz is chasing the record of or even passing former kickers like Federico and Te, perhaps even Ito, it will be the work he has put in now with Nienas that helped get him there. For this season, just being reliable in all phases of the kicking game will mark progress on special teams for Rutgers and help put more points on the board.