116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — No one needs to remind Drew Stevens what a true freshman kicker did the last time Michigan played at Kinnick Stadium.
“I’ve seen that video probably 100 times,” Stevens said.
For those who haven’t seen it 100 times, the fate of the football game was in the hands, or feet, of a young Keith Duncan. He made a 33-yard field goal as time expired to give the Hawkeyes a 14-13 win over No. 3 Michigan.
“As a kicker, that’s what you hope for — to win the game for your team like that,” Stevens said.
Stevens hasn’t received the opportunity for a game-winner yet, but he’s similarly experiencing plenty of early success as a true freshman.
After initially only handling kickoffs for the Hawkeyes, the North Augusta, S.C., native has been their place-kicker for the last two weeks and has gone 4-for-4 on field goals.
“Right now, Drew has earned the right to be our kicker,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said this week.
Stevens is one of three Big Ten kickers at 100 percent on field goal attempts this year, joining Minnesota’s Matthew Trickett and Maryland’s Chad Ryland.
The other two kickers are fifth-year seniors. Stevens was in high school at this time last year.
Florida Atlantic University’s business school developed a formula to measure kickers’ efficiency while factoring in distance and weather conditions, among other things. The FAU Jaffe Kicker Index ranks Stevens 22nd in the country and second in the Big Ten.
Stevens’ fall success comes after a rocky spring season. He missed attempts from 40, 45 and 47 yards in the one spring practice fully open to media.
“The improvement he's made from the spring is impressive,” Ferentz said.
Adjustments after the spring with private kicking coach Dan Orner included changing what he did with his hands when kicking.
“That was a big problem I had in spring ball,” Stevens said. “I was training with (Orner), and then he eventually made me put my hand out, which widened my shoulders. It would make the ball essentially go straight.”
Stevens had a 51-yard attempt against Rutgers that doinked off the left upright and bounced in for his longest field goal in his young college career.
He credited Orner’s “plan for adrenaline” for keeping him from hooking the kick too far to the left — another thing they worked on in the summer.
“When you have adrenaline, you tend to swing a lot harder,” Stevens said. “When I would swing harder — he’d seen it in warmups — the ball tends to go left. … I guess if he didn’t remind me of that, I might have missed that.”
Orner compared it to a soccer player attempting a penalty kick or a sniper taking a shot, where the “biggest thing that you have to plan for is your inconsistencies.”
“After spring ball, we have a really good bell curve of, ‘All right, when I miss, where do I miss?’” Orner said. “Now we can plan for that in terms of steps, in terms of where he makes contact on the ball.”
While Stevens seems settled in the No. 1 kicker role, it’s not a lock.
“That competition is not over,” special teams coordinator LeVar Woods said.
Aaron Blom was 1-of-3 on his field goals, but the second miss came under difficult circumstances. It was a 48-yard attempt shortly after two Iowa State penalties gifted the Hawkeyes with an unexpected 20-yard boost in the final seconds.
“We all think the game’s over,” Woods said. “If you go back and watch the tape in order … it’s wild. It should be a situation study.”
Stevens didn’t necessarily have easy circumstances either for some of his early kicks. His first game was the seven-hour marathon with three lightning delays against Nevada.
Duncan wasn’t a lock either after his early success. He beat Miguel Recinos for the starting job in 2016, but Recinos retook it in 2017 and 2018.
The similarities between Duncan and Stevens go beyond their roles as true freshmen six years apart.
Duncan is from Weddington, N.C., a suburb of Charlotte. Stevens is from North Augusta, S.C., which is a couple hours to the south. Both have worked with Orner in the Charlotte area to improve their craft.
“What I always tell my young guys is the goal is for my freshmen to replace my seniors,” Orner said.
With a one-year break while Caleb Shudak handled field goals for the Hawkeyes, Orner’s goal has come into fruition in Iowa City.
Orner makes a point to record all of his clients’ games and fast-forward through them for the kicks — he has the help of a “very large cable package” and people who will send videos of kicks for him — but Stevens has another mentor geographically much closer.
Duncan, who still lives in Iowa after wrapping up his college career in 2020, has been a resource for Stevens and noticed the issue with what he was doing with his hands in the spring.
“He’s probably one of the biggest helpers I have because we have so much to relate about,” Stevens said, “and our form is pretty much the same. If I have little kinks here and there, he’s the guy you can go to to fix it.”
As easy as it is to see the parallels between Stevens and Duncan, they have different strengths as kickers.
“Drew is a little bit more of a power kicker,” Orner said. “Keith was absolutely gifted with his ball contact, and his mental game has always been off the charts.”
Stevens said he has a “line” that fluctuates “day-to-day” for how far Iowa needs to go for him to attempt a field goal.
“Usually I determine that before the game based off wind and other things like that,” Stevens said. “Usually I like to set my baseline at 55 and go from there.”
Stevens said he’s hit a 62-yarder through Kinnick’s north uprights before, but that was with some wind.
Looking ahead, Orner sees more potential for Stevens as he spends more time with Iowa’s strength and conditioning staff.
“He’s still a pretty lean kid,” Orner said. “If he gains 15 pounds over the next year, he’s not only going to be hitting kickoffs that go 8 (yards) deep. He’s going to be putting them into the stands. ... That’s going to be a major game-changer as he gets ready for the second half of his career.”
How much of a game-changer? Well, Orner, who works with several NFL kickers, believes a Nate Kaeding-like path is possible for Stevens.
“I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that the end goal is to be kind of the next Nate Kaeding — that fifth-round draft pick, that Lou Groza winner,” Orner said. “We were so close with Keith Duncan.”