Kicking and Screaming

Daniel Murray and Trent Mossbrucker are apparently set to fight it out for the starting kicker job for next fall. It's an odd state of affairs to be sure. What should be an area of riches for the Hawkeyes-two kickers with starting credentials-instead seems to be an area of concern. That there is an open competition is somewhat surprising and maybe even a bit dubious. Most teams would be overjoyed to have two experienced place kickers, but from the outside looking in it looks as if Kirk Ferentz has a soft spot in his heart for only one, Mr. Murray. Since the Iowa City native burst on to the scene two years ago rewarding a gutsy Ferentz hunch, he has more or less been the man.

Occasionally I find myself looking back and wondering why Ferentz replaced Mossbrucker who had made 13 of 15 field goals attempted prior to the Penn State game of his freshman campaign, but the outcome on that November day was sweet history for Iowa and that Ferentz's decision was rewarded with victory closes the door on pointless speculation. Since then Mossbrucker has taken a sabbatical year, and hardly been heard from. Murray backed up that kick with a solid season statistically, but the naked eye says otherwise.

The Gazette's Mark Morehouse reported that both Murray and Mossbrucker underwhelmed Ferentz at the spring game. Morehouse noted that Murray was hitting the same sort of line drives that bedeviled him last year in the later half of the season and suggested that Mossbrucker had closed the leg strength gap which some felt separated the two going into last fall. At this point it seems the last man standing will be the one who can display the greater accuracy and consistency. However Morehouse believes, if I am reading his reading of Ferentz correctly, that Murray has earned the trust of the coaches and will need to be, much like in the world of boxing, knocked out to be removed from the starting position.

If this is true, it pains me because I have lost confidence in Murray.

Murray's line drives toward the end of last season bordered on disaster for the team and are of considerable concern to me going forward. And I must credit former Houston Oiler/Tennessee Titan place kicker Al Del Greco for my unease. Fortified by an impromptu Del Greco lecture at a golf charity event a few years back on the similarities between a golf swing and kicking a football, I now possess a once removed insight which suggests to me that Murray is suffering from a host of serious technical issues all of which makes him a time bomb waiting to explode. In reality Iowa was incredibly fortunate Murray never detonated fully last year. Going into the Georgia Tech game I was certain the outcome was going to come down to Murray's troubled leg whip, and if it did he would not be able to replicate his hero moment of two seasons ago. To his credit he was effective in the Orange Bowl and his success was crucial as Iowa sputtered after a great start. But like most of his regular season kicks, he was far from pure - not to mention his fourth quarter athleticism which proved to be highly questionable.

Al Del Greco is an exceptional golfer. Del Greco was a regular participant in the old NFL Golf Classic, a now defunct Champions Tour event played at Montclair Country Club in New Jersey. It was a joint event with the NFL where active and former NFL players were paired with senior pros to compete in their own mini-tournament that ran parallel and within the Champions Tour event. Del Greco routinely battled Trent Dilfer down the stretch for the NFL player's trophy and even won the NFL portion once. Del Greco's scores were good enough to even challenge the likes of Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd for the overall best score of the event, so he was a serious golf talent. In any event, as a golf nut and football fan I attended the tournament for several years and on one memorable occasion Del Greco discussed with several fans on the practice range the similarity in the mechanics of kicking a football and hitting a golf ball. The bulk of his analysis centered on ball flight.

In golf there are guys who have very good hand eye coordination, strong arm and leg muscles and quick hips and can attack a golf ball and crush it down the fairway or on to the green with little effort. Then there are guys who have very good hand eye coordination but need great tempo and balance and a highly repeatable swing that catches the sweet spot perfectly to be able to achieve any sort of distance. A byproduct of the highly repeatable swing just so happens to be great accuracy. The less violent the swing, the better the balance...the better the balance, the more accurate the shot. The same principles apply to kicking a football claims Del Greco.

When Murray began hitting line drives last year it signaled to me he was engaged in a technique breakdown that could be attributable to two interrelated factors: an effort to generate more power (for greater distance) and an effort to create greater lift on the ball (to avoid a blocked kick and achieve greater distance). These are two very translatable issues to golf. Often when a golfer is overly concerned about his distance or feels that his ball flight is too low it can often manifests in troublesome habits as the player applies greater aggression to his swing and inevitably losses his balance, sometimes to an almost comical effect. The outcome is rarely, if ever, a longer shot with ideal ball flight. 

On Murray's Northwestern shank last year, which very well may have cost Iowa that game, his balance was so askew he almost fell on his backside. On the Ohio State miss his plant leg and kicking leg each appeared to be attached to different people and this on a kick of less than 30 yards--a field goal distance it is worth noting of which Trent Mossbrucker has never missed. But the concern for Murray extends beyond his misses. A number of his made kicks last year were also line drives that only just stayed within the uprights. Of the 12 games in which Murray attempted at least one field goal, in only five of them did he make all his attempts. It would be fair to say that Murray is not a very accurate kicker and that may be because he is not a very sound kicker technically.

As a freshman Trent Mossbrucker missed one field goal. One. Statistics will show he missed two, but in a 35-0 game against Florida International he had a kick blocked. An offensive line with second and third teamers allowed an FIU defenseman to spoil Trent's afternoon. His only miss was against Illinois in a tight contest at a pivotal point in the season. It clearly had a lasting effect on the mind of his coach. Like Murray's Northwestern kick, the miss appeared to cost Iowa a chance at a victory.  After the Penn State snub the following week his freshman head appeared to be in a spin and he subsequently missed two extra points against Purdue. He was relegated to extra point duty in a blowout at Minnesota and then lost the starting job altogether for the 2009 season. To be fair though, Mossbrucker had some sketchy kicks on extra points prior to the Penn State game. But let's be clear...we're talking extra points and we will never know what a winning kick against Penn State-had he been given the chance-might have done for his confidence going forward.

Daniel Murray has won, shared and lost the Iowa starting kicker job at least twice and maybe three times. In 2007 Austin Signor and Murray went back and forth as the starting place kicker (as he did with Mossbrucker to start the 2008 season), and by the end of that 2007 season Murray had secured the starting job, only to reward Ferentz by missing two of three extra point attempts against Western Michigan with a bowl berth on the line. It makes one wonder what Murray is doing during practices to deserve so many chances.

Where are we now?

Well of course this contest should be wide open and Ferentz has claimed it is as much. But is it really? Murray is resilient, I give him that, and this quality appears to be very alluring to Ferentz. In fact, Murray's so resilient that I could imagine by the end of camp him be relegated to the back-up spot and it having no ill effect on his psyche whatsoever. He is dogged and scrappy to the point that even after all these years of sharing, losing and ultimately winning the starting role his technical issues have not entirely reduced him to a shanking nightmare. He is gutty but he is also scary. The PGA is filled with golfers like this, players like Billy Mayfair or Briny Baird, guys who use unconventional technique and yet stay on tour and make a very good living. But these are also guys who never are a factor on Sunday in the big tournaments. Bad technique under pressure rarely comes through. It may be that Murray's successful kick against Penn State, a short-range chip shot that under any other circumstance would be unnoticed, masked the bigger picture of what his skills really are. So far, other than the Penn State game, Iowa has not had a prominent test to my theory, or so it seems. I believe Murray's failure against Ohio State and Northwestern were just that, prominent tests of Murray's kicking ability. However, with Ricky Stanzi hurt during one and missing in the other no one really focused on Murray's botched kicks, at least to the degree I am certain they would have had Stanzi been at the helm.

In a way Murray has lived a charmed life, but I am not sure he would concur (although Mossbrucker just might). He reminds me of that car you or your family once had that just wouldn't die. You had the means to replace it but you always thought, "why should I?" It wasn't the prettiest car in the lot but it got you from point A to B and you had become used to the eccentricities and, besides, you had some good times with that thing. But Iowa is about to go on a long road trip and the destination could be a Rose Bowl or even the National Championship game. Are we sure we want to gas up the Murray for such an important trip? 

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