As any placekicker will tell you, booting field goals isn’t like shooting free throws. You don’t get two or three chances at a time. You take your best shot, then live with the result.
With that in mind, Washington State football coaches tweaked their approach to Erik Powell’s field-goal rehearsal midway through last season. Instead of having Powell attempt a series of consecutive kicks early in practice, the coaches distributed them randomly, one by one, throughout the afternoon.
Powell never knew exactly when a coach would yell, “Field goal unit!” and it was time to take center stage. He needed to stay on his toes, just as he does on Saturdays in the fall.
Looking back, the difference was astonishing. Prior to the change, the left-footed kicker had gone 0 for 5 on field-goal attempts. After the change, he went 9 for 10. He rarely missed in practice either.
“We’re going to keep doing that, obviously,” special-teams coordinator Eric Mele said this week during spring workouts.
There are surely innumerable hazy reasons for Powell’s spike in performance, including the self-confidence that gradually returned as he started nailing kicks. But he says the shuffled practice routine played a role.
“It made it more like a game-type situation,” said the senior-to-be from Vancouver, Wash. “I think it might have helped out a little bit. You try to make every kick like a game kick. In a game, you’re not going to kick three kicks in a row.”
On the other hand, nobody was surprised by Powell’s turnaround. He had gone 20 for 26 the previous season, and he’s widely respected on the team as a former soccer star who, in 10-yard sprints, is one of the quickest players on the roster. Pound for pound, he’s one of the strongest.
These assets came in handy last season as he shouldered an increasingly large role. In addition to kicking field goals and extra points, he handled kickoff duties, which are far more taxing than the casual fan realizes. He was a third-string punter, thrust surprisingly into the No. 1 role when the Cougars played Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl. Using both rugby and conventional punting styles, he averaged 45.5 yards on six kicks in that game.
“At first we put him in as a wrinkle — kind of catch the opponent off guard,” Mele said. “Good result, so we just kept on working with it. I didn’t want to do it all year long — didn’t want to diminish his results on kickoffs and field goals. For the bowl game, we had extra weeks of preparation and figured he’s got the whole offseason to recover.”
Zach Charme, who had entered last season as the Cougars’ No. 1 punter as a sophomore, wound up punting only eight times, and he has since left the program and is considering transferring. Second-year freshman punter Tommy Park has joined the active roster, and receiver Kyle Sweet will continue to moonlight as a rugby-punter. And Powell, too, is likely to remain in the punting mix.
But his day job is kicking field goals, and Mele calls him abundantly gifted in that role. For one thing, he had the mental strength to endure his 0-for-5 start last year, stretched out over five games. Cougars coach Mike Leach, who looks askance at field-goal attempts anyway, seemed to make even more fourth-down gambles during that span.
Anonymous fans had plenty to say about Powell’s slump, but the kicker shielded himself from the criticism as much as possible, saying he avoids social media even in the best of times.
“Coach Loscalzo talks about it a lot — those are the same people that are going to be cheering you on when you’re doing well,” Powell said, citing strength coach Jason Loscalzo. “We talk about blocking out all the outside noise. It’s easier to block out when you’re not doing well.
“It was a little bit rough,” he said, “but Mele kept a lot of confidence in me, and each week was a new week, a new kick. I tried not to dwell on the past.”
Leach said nose tackle Ngalu Tapa is sidelined while “diligently working on his academics.” ... Also playing a low-profile role is rush linebacker Logan Tago, who in January was convicted of third-degree assault stemming from an incident last June. His sentence includes 30 days in jail, and he recently completed an athletic-department suspension, imposed after his conviction. He was suspended for a stretch during the 2016 season.