UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Confidence and consistency key for kickers

FB_120825_French_Kyle.jpegBy his own admission, Jack Russell sank to a new personal depth on the same day that Wisconsin's first fall depth chart was released and Russell was listed on the top line as the Badgers' No. 1 placekicker, ahead of Kyle French.  By contrast, French began the day on a "low'' and finished on a "high.''

None of it was a coincidence.

After Russell made only 2-of-4 field goal attempts at the end of last Monday's practice, he admitted, "I didn't necessarily feel pressure (to validate being No. 1 on the depth chart) but I felt that I needed to be more focused and that caused me to make a couple of mistakes.''

After French went a perfect 4-for-4 in the same drill, he said, "When I saw that I was listed as the No. 2 field goal kicker -- actually Coach (Charlie) Partridge told me that morning -- it kind of gave me a bump. But the other thing that it did was it kind of relaxed me.''

Wisconsin natives Russell, a freshman walk-on from Waunakee, and French, a redshirt sophomore from Menomonee Falls, have been volleying back and forth throughout camp in a spirited, but friendly, competition punctuated by good days and inconsistent ones -- to the learning benefit of each kicker.

"Jack and I love competing,'' French said.

"I've tried to learn something out of every drill,'' Russell added.

The Badgers are looking to replace Philip Welch, who finished with the second-highest career field goal percentage (.776) in school history behind Matt Davenport (.868); the second-most field goals made (59) behind Todd Gregoire (65); and the second-most career points (384) behind Ron Dayne (426).

While Welch was sidelined with an injury at the start of the 2011 season,  French got some valuable game experience and converted on 3-of-5 field goals and 26-of-27 extra points. (Welch returned for Big Ten play and made 5-of-6 overall, including a season-long 52-yarder against Purdue.)

It was generally assumed that French would replace Welch and handle all the placements this season while Russell would be the kickoff specialist; an assignment that was split between Welch and Alec Lerner last year. At least that was the assumption going into the training camp.

When the depth chart came out, the roles were reversed.

"The first week I felt very confident and I was kicking well,'' French said. "But once I ended up having a 2-for-4 day, I just got kind of overwhelmed. Once you brought the adrenaline-type of situations into it, I kind of -- not really freaked out -- but my body started doing things that it didn't normally do.''

French noted that he got positive reinforcement from UW assistant coach Charlie Partridge, who's in charge of the field goal operation. "Working with Coach Partridge,'' he said, "we worked on 'calming yourself down and keeping your composure' before each kick and that's helped a lot.''

Although he was disappointed last Monday to be listed No. 2 on the depth chart, French hinted that it served as the equivalent of a wake-up call. "It was a big motivating day for me,'' he said, stressing, "This is your time to prove to them (the coaches) and yourself that you belong in the No. 1 spot.''

French had nothing but praise for Russell's competitiveness."Throughout the summer, I definitely thought he was much better at kickoffs than field goals,'' French said. "Field-goal wise, he surprised me a lot. When he came out here (to training camp), he just had that confidence.''

Russell was definitely riding a wave of momentum. In mid-July, he kicked a 49-yard field goal in the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Star Game for divisions 1-3 in Oshkosh. In his final prep game, he kicked a 48-yarder as Waunakee won its third straight WIAA Division 2 state championship.

"My expectation was to just compete,'' said Russell, a preferred walk-on. "I didn't come in necessarily with any expectations that I was going to start (off as the No. 1 placekicker). I knew that I had to come out and compete and give it my best and go from there.

"I try not to put pressure on myself. But I know my family and friends -- Waunakee is close (to Madison) -- are really keeping tab on the Badgers. And after the depth chart came out, I got a lot of texts, calls and comments on Facebook that made me feel really good.''

One of those calls was from former UW placekicker Taylor Mehlhaff, who has been serving as a mentor to Russell. Only Gregoire and Welch kicked more career field goals than Mehlhaff (50), a two-time first-team All-Big Ten pick and a sixth-round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints in 2008.

Mehlhaff, who has been conducting camps and tutoring kickers around the country, recently joined the University of Tennessee coaching staff as an administrative intern for special teams.

"I actually consider him family with as much as he's taught me,'' Russell said of Mehlhaff. "I talked to him for about a half-hour Monday. He congratulated me and told me, 'Just because that's what it is (No. 1) on the depth chart right now, it doesn't mean that I can take any breaks.'''

Shortly after Russell made the conversion from soccer to football -- a transition that has only been three years in the making -- he was introduced to Mehlhaff at a kicking camp on the UW campus. "He asked if he could work with me privately,'' Russell said, "and it has taken off from there.''

There's one piece of advice that has stuck with him, too. "Keep your eyes back, not necessarily your head, when kicking,'' he said. "You want to try and watch your foot and make contact with the ball. Even if you have a bad swing, if you're good with your eyes, you'll make most of your kicks.''

French also has a mentor in Jamie Kohl, a former Iowa State kicker who's the director of the Kohl kicking, punting and snapping camps, one of which is based out of Waukesha. "I worked a lot with him,'' French said, "and any time I have questions, he's very good about responding back.''

Russell and French subscribe to the same motivational author, Tim Gallwey, who has written a series of books that focus on mind-over- matter training methods related to "The Inner Game.''

French has read "The Inner Game of Golf.''

"I believe golf and kicking are very similar; no matter where you are, it's always the same stroke, obviously except when you're chipping,'' French said. "The book has allowed me to kind of clear the mechanism in pressure situations. I've applied a lot that I've learned from the book to my kicking game.''

Russell is currently reading "The Inner Game of Tennis.''

"Taylor (Mehlhaff) was the first one to introduce me to the book,'' he said. "He has been a big proponent of the mental side of the game and I finally got around to reading the book this summer. Last Monday, I just picked up where I last left off, and where I picked up was exactly what I needed (to read).''

This was after missing a couple of field goals at the end of Monday's practice.

"I needed to relax my mind,'' Russell said, "and not be too focused on kicking.''

Between now and the Sept. 1 opener, Russell and French will each be working on writing the next chapter to their competition, which could very well continue throughout the 2012 season, barring any more unexpected plot twists.