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December 20, 2012* This story appears in the most recent issue of Blue White Illustrated's magazine, which prints and mails to our subscribers today.
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By Lori Shontz
Blue White Contributor
There's a rule of thumb for kickers: Kick 45, maybe 50 balls a day. Less than that, you're not properly preparing. More than that, you're risking injury.
Sam Ficken ignored it. The week after the Virginia game - when he missed an extra point and four field goals, including a 42-yarder that would have won the game - Penn State's sophomore kicker went a little bananas. "I probably kicked 100 a day," he said.
He then dialed it back to 70, maybe 75 kicks a day. For six weeks. All of that practice took a toll when Ficken injured his quadriceps and couldn't kick at all the week leading up to the Ohio State game.
"I kicked so much," he said, "I think my leg finally gave in."
But Ficken wasn't kicking just to kick. He reached out to former Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould, who helped to hone his technique. He made some adjustments suggested by assistant coach John Butler, who handles the Nittany Lions' special teams.
And although Ficken's quad muscle was, he says, only 85 or 90 percent healed by the end of the season, he finished by hitting his final 10 field-goal attempts, including the 37-yard winner in overtime against Wisconsin.
"I guess that could be considered an exclamation point," Ficken said.
Ficken had never expected to find himself in such a situation. He'd been more than reliable in high school, earning Indiana Class 5A All-State recognition and making three winning kicks as a senior at Valparaiso High School. Among the 13 field goals he made that senior year was a 52-yarder.
He didn't see much action as a Penn State freshman playing behind Anthony Fera, but when Fera transferred to Texas after the NCAA sanctions, Ficken became the team's only option.
And he struggled.
He missed those four field goals against Virginia, including a 20-yarder, and he got a significant number of angry messages on social media. Coach Bill O'Brien defended Ficken at his news conference the week after the game, saying that the protection, the snap and the hold weren't "always great," either.
But O'Brien began going for it on fourth down in what seemed to be obvious kicking situations, although he continually denied it was because he lacked confidence in Ficken: "I just liked the play call," he said, repeatedly.
Ficken said he didn't worry about that. "That's Coach's call. I'm not a strategist. He knows a ton more about football than I do. I'm not going to judge what he's thinking. I'm just going to do my job when he calls my number."
And that meant making some changes. "Tweaks," Ficken called them, adding, "They're not something that someone who doesn't know a whole lot about kicking would notice."
The first: aligning his plant foot. It had been "too open," Ficken said, and the result was a lack of accuracy. "I'm a lot more consistent in the way I'm doing it now," he said.
The second: slowing down. Early in the season, Ficken's foot was connecting with the ball 1.2 seconds after the snap, which he said is particularly fast. Now, by concentrating and relaxing and taking a slower first step, he's taking between 1.3 and 1.35 seconds.
"You wouldn't think a 10th of a second would make a huge difference," Ficken said, "but when the ball is getting down and you have a half-second to judge where it is, it helps a lot."
The third: rounding out his leg swing. It was too flat, Ficken said, which meant that he wasn't aiming exactly toward the upright. By taking the leg up higher, "that gives the ball a better flight path." Additionally, this has prevented his kicks from tailing off.
"There is a lot of credit that you have to give to him because he's really worked at it," O'Brien said in mid-November. "When you're kicking better and better, you're gaining more and more confidence and he's a very, very laid-back guy who cares about his teammates, wants to do well. It's nice to see him improve like he has."
Ficken worked out the three tweaks with Butler and primarily with Gould, who went from a solid kicker with the Nittany Lions to an undrafted NFL free agent to a construction worker in Mill Hall, Pa., to a Pro Bowl kicker for the Bears.
"Look at him," Ficken said. "He wasn't the best here, but now he's the best in the NFL."
Ficken said he and Gould text frequently and that they made use of the Hudl iPhone app to work on his technique. He also said he never lost confidence.
"In practice, I make almost every field goal we take, and it's like a game situation - the rush, the line in front of you, the coaches are all yelling at you," Ficken said. "It's pretty gamelike. That aspect hasn't changed a lot. It's just finally paying off - all of those little details are making me more consistent."
In the off-season, Ficken said, he's going to work to strengthen his leg and to continue refining his technique so he's no longer in a situation in which he needs to kick so many balls in practice during the season.
And he's going to enjoy how this season ended.
"It feels good to have that big a turnaround," he said. "The hard work really paid off."