Field goal kicking can be test of mental fortitude, given the physical challenges and the pressure-packed environment under which it is often performed.
But punting? Even the name elicits a certain degree of mundane simplicity.
Yet for the three candidates vying for the job as kicker of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the act and art of dropping and kicking the football is likely to be the difference between employability and a ticket home. And given that the lot of them are place-kickers first and punters a distant second – maybe even third – things can get a little stressful even without the uprights as part of the equation.
“The biggest thing with punting is believing that you can do it consistently, ” says Sergio Castillo, one of the three kickers in camp. “When I stand back there now, I believe I’m going to catch it, take two steps and boom. It’s about believing it, feeling it and living it.”
That confidence did not come quickly or easily. Castillo got his first CFL opportunity when he came to Hamilton in 2014 as an mid-season insurance policy behind Justin Medlock his punting – and his relationship with Medlock – was often rocky. But when the two were reunited in Winnipeg last season, Castillo was able to forge a friendship with the notoriously meticulous Medlock, who schooled him the nuances of the Canadian kicking game.
“I think being with Medlock for half the season, I learned a bunch. It brought my game to a different level, especially mentally: how to prepare, how to carry myself, ” Castillo said.
“I came in as a kicker and I’ve really worked on my punting the last couple of years – it’s all Medlock and I talk about now.”
Of the three candidates – only Castillo has CFL experience and it’s limited at that: six games played, 10 of 13 (76.9 per cent) on field goals, 44.6 yard average on 21 punts. Craig Peterson has spent the last two seasons in the Arena Football League – not much punting there – while Ryan Hawkins played four years at Northern Arizona University, making 24 of his 29 field goal attempts (82.8 per cent) and punting 73 times for an average of 47.7 yards.
New special teams co-ordinator Dennis McKnight says the first two days of workouts haven’t revealed much except nervousness.
“Right now, they’re very inconsistent, everybody is pressing too much, ” he said.
“It’s like going on the driving range and hitting bombs, then I go to the first tee and see sand left, water right and I start trying to steer it and I can’t do my job.”
McKnight spent 11 years in the NFL as a long snapper and so has a familiarity with the challenges of the kicking game and an idea of what characteristics he’s looking for.
“I spent 20 years with my head between my legs looking at those guys and I know what the mentality is, ” McKnight said. “Nobody gives a crap about them until something bad happens. So I’m looking for the toughest guy, mentally. Who can miss four kicks on a rainy day and come back and make a 52-yarder?”
Head coach Kent Austin said every kick and punt is being meticulously charted but a significant amount of weight will be given to the performances in the team’s two pre-season games. The first one takes place June 8 in Ottawa, the second eight days later at Tim Hortons Field.
“A lot of these guys early in their life do all three but then as they get older they start to specialize in one area. What you typically find is they are really good at one of the three, maybe OK at one of the other two and not so good in the third, ” Austin said.
“What we’re trying to find is a blend of skills where there’s a level of consistency that we can trust.”
Sounds simple enough. Executing it, however, that’s a little harder.
NOTES: The Ticats had a lighter practice day on Tuesday as part of the team’s data-driven training camp schedule. The team did some light on-field work and team yoga session. … Austin said there have been no major injuries so far but a few players will miss up to a week with small nicks.