So much relies on the foot of a kicker in determining the success or failure of a college football game, yet until the past few years the recruitment of punters and kickers have not been a priority.
There have been many reasons why the college kicking game is such a crapshoot, not just for colleges, but right up to NFL teams. The conventional wisdom was that if you had a couple of open recruiting slots to fill and it was between a lineman or a kicker/punter, nine times out of ten, you take the linemen. Kickers and punters were left with walking on to the team or at best as a preferred walk on (PWO).
The high school kicking game was historically almost non-existent as anything outside of the twenty-yard line was considered outside of the average high school kickers range. Then you take into consideration playing surfaces, the popularity of high school soccer and before you know it the average high school kicker is anyone who can fog a mirror. Even the consistently top college football programs once considered the kicking game as an afterthought.
Historically, kickers and punters can be seen at most practices working on consistency. Technique is largely left to being taught by assistant coaches when they have the time during the season and private training sessions with professional kicking coaches in the off-season. Placekickers were all alone on this field, nobody watching as they perfect their craft.
Today, recruitment of the kicking game has evolved. There are now numerous kicking academies where you can learn to refine your kicking, punting and long snapping. Today, college coaches can rely on recruiting services that rate and review the kicking game. Some of the savvy college coaches have always understood the value of a reliable kicker or a punter who can directionally punt the football. But it has taken awhile for many college programs to catch up. Still, these services are limited in what they tell colleges looking to recruit kickers.
So much of the kicking game is psychological. How a player performs at a national or regional kicking competition is very different than lining up for a field goal with the game on the line and 80 thousand fans screaming for you to miss. Finally, even if a team needs a kicker and he is game tested, there’s probably a walk on candidate already at the school (probably on the soccer team) who’s is better.
During Greg Schiano’s tenures at Rutgers, special teams and the kicking game have always been a priority. In his first tenure, Jeremy Ito and San San Te kicked the most and second most field goals respectively in program history. Still, Rutgers like so many other programs have been limited by the speculative nature of getting the kicking game right. Sometimes you also need a little luck or divine intervention.
James Kratch of NJ Advance Media recently wrote about one such serendipitous event that changed the fortunes of the Rutgers kicking game.
“It was back when the Hale Center was still the Grand Central Terminal of Busch Campus, housing five other programs alongside Rutgers football. The tight quarters allowed Ambrosio, then a midfielder for the men’s soccer team bumped into tight ends coach Nunzio Campanile with a message: He was interested in kicking for the Scarlet Knights. Word worked its way up to then-new head coach Greg Schiano, who spoke to Ambrosio and then got soccer coach Jim McElderry’s blessing. The transition became official. And several months later, it became one of the highlights of Rutgers’ revitalization during the 2020 season. Ambrosio kicked his way onto the field right before midseason last fall and drilled nine-of-11 field goals — including the game-tying and game-winning kicks in the overtime win at Maryland — alongside 15-of-16 extra points. There will be no wait to take the job this fall; Ambrosio has been the no-doubt starter since the spring, and he believes he has taken his craft to another level during training camp.”
Ambrosio enters the 2021 season as the unquestioned starter. Guy Fava, who was replaced by him midway last season, remains the backup.
Rutgers also added highly sought after kicker Michael O’Connor as a preferred walk-on. The Red Bank, New Jersey native explained to Bobby Deren of 247 Sports about his decision. “I chose Rutgers because of how family and trust oriented the coaching staff and program are. Every time I got on a call with any one of the coaches, I felt like I was a part of the family and now I am blessed to be a part of the family,” O’Connor told Scarlet Nation. “ I gave it a lot of thought and came to the conclusion that the Rutgers culture of Family, Trust, and Chop was the perfect fit for me to develop as a player and a person.”
The Scarlet Knights also added Towson transfer Eric Bernstein to this season’s roster. Like O’Connor, he is a preferred walk-on.
Rutgers has already added a kicker to its 2022 recruiting class. Jai Patel, a native of South Brunswick, New Jersey is a 5-star kicker in the 2022 class, per Kohl’s Kicking Camps and is also listed as a 3-star punter. Patel will be a preferred walk-on for the Scarlet Knights.
As recruitment of the kicking game has evolved, Rutgers has evolved with it, well positioning the kicking game for the 2021 season and for the immediate future.