From the Press Box
A Weekly Column by OSN Analyst Josh Hatfield
The Bottom Line: Ohio Kickers Produce.
By Josh Hatfield
Brian Knorr's tenure as Head Coach of the Ohio Bobcat football team began with the realization he could no longer serve as Defensive Coordinator. Knorr will openly admit that head coach is a far cry from being a coordinator or position coach, in that the overall demands of being the head boss leave little time for anything else. But Knorr is a hands-on coach, and when the idea of running the special teams came up, Ohio's 27th head coach stepped up and took the reins. However, Knorr is finding that while game plans and opponents change with the given week, his kickers are as dependable as they come. You will be hard pressed to find a better kicking squad in the MAC than Ohio has this season.
Ohio special teams begin and end with punter Dave Zastudil (Bay Village, Ohio). The fifth year senior has dominated the MAC kicking world since '98, leading the league in punting all four years. A career average of over 43 yards isn't what pro scouts and opposing coaches marvel at, though. It's Z's athleticism and versatility that set him apart from other punters throughout the college ranks nationwide. Now, the senior punter has added another honor the list, as he was selected to a list of 10 finalists for the Ray Guy Award, which is given to the nation's best punter every year. ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr. proclaimed Zastudil as the best senior punter earlier in the season, which is high praise considering the respect and recognition Kiper gets for being an excellent evaluator of talent.
Zastudil will have his chance to prove such remarks correct when he plays in the 2002 Hula Bowl on February 2, a game that showcases the country's top senior football players in an all-star game format. Between now and then, Dave will continue to make field position a living nightmare for opposing teams with his brilliant array of booming punts. While known for being a distance kicker, Zastudil has played a different role in recent weeks. While he averages 44.1 yards on 29 kicks this season, the past two games have called for finesse rather than firepower. In his last nine punts, Dave Zastudil has pinned Miami and Kent State inside their own 20-yard line six times. Complete player? I think so.
As a scout from one NFC-East team said recently, Zastudil has all the physical tools plus the smarts to go with it (GPA over 3.0), which is what teams at the next level look for. A punter must be able to adapt to the circumstances on the field, helping his team despite averages or gaudy numbers.
Along with his punting duties, Zastudil also holds for field goal and extra point tries while teammate Kevin Kerr does what he does best - split the uprights. Kerr, a junior placekicker with ice in his veins, is already tied for first place in career field goals at Ohio with 28. Gary Homer and Steve Green, the former Bobcats who currently share the career mark, played from 1972-75 and 76-79 respectively. Kerr, with four games left this season, could easily eclipse the record in the coming weeks and add to it before his senior year even begins. In 29 career games, Kevin Kerr has hit 28 of 39 field goal tries, including seven of eight in the current campaign. That includes four from beyond 50 yards and two from 55.
Such consistency has allowed Ohio to drive just over midfield on several occasions these past few years and get points at the end of the first half, the most recent being against Toledo this season, when Kerr sliced in one of those 55-yarders as time expired. The points were exactly what the team needed, gaining momentum back as they left for the locker room after two quarters.
Kerr has also aided the team with his ability to put kickoffs into the end zone, ensuring a start at the 20 by the oppositions offense. When asked, the junior also excels at the "sky kick", a high angled kickoff that is fielded by the second level of the kick return team, almost always resulting in a fair catch. Ohio has utilized this gimmick for years; thereby nullifying another teams dangerous return man and still limiting field position. The "sky kick" has also led to a few fumbles the past two seasons, as players not usually handling the ball on returns are put on the spot.
Kerr has also already picked up postseason honors, being named a semifinalist (top 20) for the Lou Groza Award, symbolic of the nation's top kicker.
Clearly, such production is enhanced with excellent practice habits, and Knorr has found working with Kerr and Zastudil to be rewarding, no more than on Saturdays when it matters most. Dave Zastudil is as humble a potential All-American can expect to be, and Kevin Kerr is a study in calm on game day. The fact they are working this season with a new long-snapper (Brandon Swiger) has not deterred the efforts of these kickers in the least. Swiger, after a summer of shaky snaps, has come into his own and continues to be on target in games.
Confidence is clearly the name of the game in kicking, a part of football that fans usually ignore until the game is on the line. Imagine sitting on the sidelines for almost the entire contest, maintaining your razor-like focus and center of calm. Then in a flash, you're being asked to make one play that determines the outcome of the game. Welcome to the world of a kicker, and I'd pay to meet one who doesn't want the weight of the world on his shoulders as he boots the game-deciding kick. Isn't this a fun game?
The Ohio Bobcats must continue to improve in all three phases of the game as they travel to Buffalo this weekend for an autumn battle with the Bulls. A team that has lost several nail-biters this year again takes to the road in hopes of upping their win count to two, and with several key players returning from injury, the time is now. Depth is important at every position in football, but in the kicking department, Ohio's starters are set in stone. Sometime during the course of the game, Dave Zastudil and Kevin Kerr will make plays that appear to be easy, but in reality are culminations of hours of practice and study of their craft. That craft is kicking, and if you find a better pair in this league than Zastudil and Kerr, be sure to write me. Of course, I'll have to see it to believe it.