116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — It’s the position on the field right before a commercial break or metaphorically the one who stands naked in front of 70,000 people.
It’s the reason fans leap from their seats in sheer elation, or the subject of beer-spat, cursed shouts in the final seconds of a desperate run.
According to a 1997 song by Adam Sandler, it’s often “lonesome.”
Fans poke fun at the stories about it, but the truth is: kicking is winning.
Of course, the University of Iowa football program makes the sophomore punter, Tory Taylor, one of three players available at the first media day of the spring season.
And it’s no coincidence senior kicker Caleb Shudak was one of three players granted in-person interviews on the final day of the spring season.
But while Iowa football is recognized for its farm-boy-men of-steel: linemen, tight ends and linebackers (oh my), much of its success rests on the shoulders of the smallest men on the team.
“I remember in December of 1998 when Coach (Kirk) Ferentz took over the program, he talked to us about how we were going to win at Iowa, and it was: we're going to win by playing great defense, playing great special teams and gain an edge in strength and conditioning,” Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods said. “I was 20 years old at the time and I remember like it was yesterday.”
Maybe it’s because not a ton of them move on to the NFL, where the spots are more limited than others, but Iowa’s kickers in the Ferentz era have collectively made 76.7 percent of their field goals. Former San Diego Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, who started at Iowa from 2000-2003, is Iowa’s all-time leading scorer with 367 points.
“I know for a fact that there's certain programs where if you just go around and kick some balls in front of the team, and went like 60 percent, maybe like that’s OK,” said Miguel Recinos, Iowa’s kicker from 2014 to ’18. “But if we went 60 percent in practice, I think some of the coaches might blow their arteries."
Kaeding agrees, taking it a step further by saying the expectation at Iowa is above 80 percent, which would put it in the top 25 percent of college football programs.
Recinos led the Hawkeyes in scoring in 2018 with 98 points, which was second in the Big Ten. Keith Duncan set a Big Ten Conference single-season record with 29 field goals in 2019, which ranks sixth all-time in the NCAA and third in single-season scoring (119).
He also made 20 career field goals of 40 yards or more, which is the most in program history. Duncan holds the record for field goal accuracy, connecting on 52 of 63 attempts for an 82.5 percent success rate.
Duncan and Recinos went head-to-head for that starting spot. Duncan beat out Recinos for the job in 2016, but Recinos took it over for the 2017 and 2018 seasons before Duncan emerged after Recinos graduated.
“I think the camp that Miguel beat me out, he went like 95 percent or 96 percent at camp,” Duncan said. “Which is unreal.”
Finding and attracting the right guy
Recinos, Duncan and Shudak started as walk-ons, but Duncan and Shudak eventually earned scholarships.
Recinos had his mind set on Iowa State, where he believed he would’ve started immediately. But Iowa came in last minute with a different sell.
“The stereotype is the kicker is a position that we have to field, but at Iowa, it was very different,” Recinos said. “You’re seen as a leader.”
Duncan’s story is different. He said he was probably the least-recruited kicker in Iowa history. He just so happened to have a distant connection to former Iowa and NFL punter Jason Baker, who played on the Carolina Panthers with kicker John Kasay.
Kasay, who was the athletics director of Charlotte Christian High School, saw Duncan kicking for Weddington High School, texted Baker, who then contacted Iowa. Next thing Duncan knew, he had a call from assistant coach Seth Wallace, asking him to walk on at Iowa.
Woods, the special teams coordinator, said Iowa likes to find kickers who are all-around athletes who don’t just specialize in kicking. Shudak was a four-year football letterman as kicker, running back, linebacker and defensive back for Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs who also lettered in swimming, tennis, track and baseball. Recinos also played soccer.
The trend dates back to Kaeding, who also lettered in basketball, football and soccer in addition to football at Iowa City West. Marshall Koehn, who played from 2011-15, was a varsity letterman in baseball, soccer and wrestling at Solon High School.
Duncan was once again the anomaly, playing baseball his freshman year before focusing on kicking.
“I will go on record and say that I feel like I'm fairly athletic,” Duncan said. “We have a Hawkeye Championship that goes on every summer and I was eighth. I’m not just that goofy kicker that doesn’t know how to run.”
But that multi-sport athlete mentality is more of the focus. Woods said it takes a special competitor to walk on as a kicker at Iowa, since it tends to keep depth at the position.
“We're looking for not only guys that are good kickers, but show the leg strength, and the athleticism to improve,” Woods said. “Our general program’s philosophy is player development and it's no different for the kicker position.”
Training with the big boys
Recinos said he knew many kickers elsewhere who didn’t train like he did. Iowa kickers are expected to go through the same strength program as every other player on the team, including summer camp.
“Kickers had to do everything everyone else did,” Recinos said. “That was important because it kept us honest because you're never gonna push yourself as hard. We did our whole summer workouts in full view of the coaches and the team. It legitimized us.”
Duncan said he didn’t live with specialists either. He roomed with tight end T.J. Hockenson, defensive back Colton Dinsdale and linebacker Nick Anderson during his time at Iowa, which cultivated a community atmosphere.
That’s the kind of community the kickers don’t want to let down, so when Woods puts kickers through simulated high-pressure simulations at practice, it’s almost more nerve-wracking than a game atmosphere.
“They would stop all of practice when we would go out there and if you miss it, you're going to get an earful,” Recinos said. “It's a little bit more intimidating if Coach Ferentz standing two feet away from you, yelling at you, versus 100,000 fans because you know at the end of the day, what can fans really do to you?”
Normally, Recinos said, in a game situation where a team is fourth-and-1 from the 15, the kicker is taking a 33-yard field goal, but in practice, the coaches would call for the chains to be moved back an extra 25 yards to up the difficulty.
That kind of competition was on display at the final spring practice, where Shudak and redshirt freshman Aaron Blom ripped field goals that were over 40 yards long. Shudak said his longest in practice was from 58 yards last summer and 56 yards this spring.
“I’m very comfortable at 50-plus,” Shudak said after the final spring football practice on May 1.
Filling the shoes
Iowa’s built a consistent pack of kickers that didn’t exist when Kaeding got his first start.
“I was 18 years old in the middle of May, playing in the state soccer championship and in the fall I was on national TV playing in the Big Ten,” Kaeding said. “I got thrown to the wolves early and my freshman performance exemplified that: I was only in the upper 60 percent.”
But now, with Kaeding being nearby as a resource to train future kickers, there’s a known legacy many are willing to fight for a chance to uphold.
“This is something that can either produce really good results or really poor results,” Recinos said. “I remember when Keith and I were kicking — we're very honest with each other. I would tell him when he was starting I want him to feel like: Miguel is breathing down my neck.”
Kaeding said Shudak brings power and dimension to the position, one that has been consistent in the kickoff game, averaging just over 60 yards on 51 kicks and 30 touchbacks last season, whereas Duncan was more known for his sharp accuracy.
“I think 90 percent of the other college programs, he’d have a couple of years under his belt as the full-time guy,” Kaeding said. “It’s just a unique set of circumstances. Kicking is a lot like golf, it's not how good your best kick is, it's how good your worst kick is.”
Shudak thought about NFL opportunities elsewhere and even entered the transfer portal, but staying at Iowa ended up being the easiest choice. Plus, he’s been waiting to lead the legacy.
“I feel super fortunate,” Shudak said. “I think we have a great competition with Lucas (Amaya) and Aaron (Blom).”
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