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IOWA CITY — Scoring a 96 percent didn’t cut it for Caleb Shudak at Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs.
“If he knew he was right, he would literally go to the teacher and argue for more points,” his mother, Trudi Shudak, said. “I would be like, ‘Dude, it’s an ‘A.’ Can you relax?’”
After five years of waiting in Iowa City, the ultracompetitive Shudak appears to be on his way to picking up an “A” on field-goal kicking, too.
The sixth-year senior took advantage of the extra year of eligibility afforded to athletes because of COVID-19.
“He’s 28 years old. He’s teaching in the engineering school — I’m joking,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said after last week’s Penn State win. “He may be teaching here eventually.”
Shudak, who actually will turn 24 next month, has hit 11 of 12 field goals in 2021 after attempting just one field goal in his first five years.
His 91.7 percent success rate is the third-highest in the Big Ten.
That comes despite taking more long-distance kicks than many of his conference peers. Shudak’s five field goals made from 40-plus yards are the most in the Big Ten.
Shudak’s six attempts from 40-plus yards are second only to Illinois kicker James McCourt’s seven attempts.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I think he’s the best kicker in the nation right now,” said Keith Duncan, his former teammate and 2019 consensus All-America kicker. “I would take him over anyone right now. He’s got a great leg, he’s composed and he’s just extremely mature.”
Working with the same guys as in years past, like holder Ryan Gersonde, means the “rhythm is just there,” Shudak said.
Results aside, one word comes up a lot when talking to Shudak about his sixth year: “fun.”
“The locker room is fun. Practice is fun,” he said. “Everything is exciting, and it’s always fun to go out and practice. Whether it’s waking up today at 6 a.m., it doesn’t matter. You get to hang out with 125 of your best friends.”
He already finished his master’s degree, allowing him to focus on football and have more fun. Only one of his classes is in person this semester.
“I’m just taking some gen-eds right now,” Shudak said. “It’s been kind of nice to relax a little bit and kind of focus on my technique and my performance.”
That fun extends across Iowa on Interstate 80 to Council Bluffs. His parents have made the trip for every game, including the exciting Penn State win where Shudak hit three field goals.
When the fans stormed the field, Trudi Shudak scanned the field to see if her 5-foot-8 son made it through to the locker room.
“I couldn’t find him from the stands, and that’s all I kept thinking,” Trudi said. “He gets a lot of grief from the other team and he gets teased sometimes from his own team about his height, so I was like, ‘I’m hoping he can make his way through.’”
Shudak, while confident, is quick to deflect credit to others on the special teams unit.
“That’s a testament to just our unit as a whole,” Shudak said. “The line does a great job blocking, and then we have a great snapper and holder that are consistently doing their job to the best of their abilities. … That’s given me a really good chance to be successful, and I couldn’t do it without them.”
Shudak learned breathing techniques, among other things, from Duncan. That helped for some big moments against Penn State.
“I honestly didn’t realize how big of moments they were until after it happened,” Shudak said. “If I get my heart rate down, keep my body feeling fresh — if I know I can do that — then it feels the same as practice reps.”
With three field goals and two extra points, he was responsible for almost half of the Hawkeyes’ points.
“Those weren’t easy field goals the other day,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “All of us had total confidence he would nail those things.”
The five years of waiting for opportunities like the Penn State game weren’t necessarily easy, though.
“It definitely tested my patience,” Shudak said. “It tested my confidence in myself.”
Each year, something fell in the way of a starting spot for Shudak.
He redshirted as a walk-on in 2016 and then missed his 2017 season with an injury. Kickers ahead of him on the depth chart got the starting job in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Duncan was the starting kicker for field goals and extra points in 2019 and 2020 although Shudak had the kickoff duties in both those years.
“There is a friendly rivalry there,” Duncan said. “It was only to make each other better, and at the end of the day, our goal was to help the team win. I think we did a good job of that.”
That “friendly rivalry” included a two-way street for advice regardless of whoever was on the top of the depth chart.
“I still take advice from him,” Duncan said about his “great friend.”
The competition between Shudak and Duncan was “literally neck-and-neck,” Ferentz said.
“If Keith had had to come out of the game — food poisoning or whatever — Caleb would have gone in there and done a great job,” Ferentz said.
The work ethic that fought for every point in high school helped Shudak make the most out of some years where there wasn’t much he could do on the field.
"He spent a lot of time watching videos just to try to make himself better as a kicker,” Traci said. “Just trying to find little things that he could do to make himself better once he was able to get back at it.”
As Duncan sees it, having to wait so long makes Shudak’s feats this year even more impressive.
“People don’t realize that five years out of the game and then coming back and you’re just thrown into a game that you haven’t played in a while is really tough to do,” Duncan said.
It’s not a surprise, though. Duncan called Shudak “one of the smartest guys that I know” who was “getting his master’s in something that I probably couldn’t even pronounce.”
Shudak’s same perfectionist mentality in high school classes has transferred to his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Iowa.
“At one point in time, he actually had a ‘B’ in one of his classes in the middle of a semester,” his mother said. “He was just beside himself.”
His focus on perfection goes beyond just tests. Trudi Shudak said Caleb “carries it in pretty much everything he does.”
That includes ping-pong, as Duncan found out the hard way.
“The guys were like, ‘Oh, I’m a really good player,’” Trudi Shudak said. “He was like, ‘All right, I’ll take you on,’ and he can beat everybody.”
Duncan alleges he can beat Shudak.
“Ask me (who usually won) and I’m going to say myself,” Duncan said. “If you ask Caleb, he’s going to say himself.”
But he admitted Shudak is a “really good ping-pong player” who may have bested Duncan quite a bit.
“I have to be fair, man,” Duncan said. “I will say that Caleb got my number more than a couple of times.”
Neither player would take those matches lightly.
“It gets pretty heated,” Duncan said. “I remember we were walking out, going into the team meeting and we were dripping in sweat. It’s the only time a specialist is probably ever sweating.”
Shudak hadn’t even played ping-pong for that long, his mother said. The family bought a table for its basement when he was in high school.
A lot of it comes from his tennis career, which included a trip to the high school state tournament as a freshman. He lettered in five different sports in high school after his mother had him try all the sports growing up to know which ones he liked.
The specialists also competed in billiards and had a “specialist wrestling belt” for the winning pair of players, Duncan said. The Shudak-Duncan duo kept the belt for “the majority of the year.”
“That was a good accomplishment to have and a great resume builder,” Duncan said.
The veteran kicker is not getting too caught up in the fun and the team’s No. 2 ranking, though.
“We have goals out there that we still want to get to,” Shudak said. “We still have to perform week in and week out.”
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