The Notre Dame kicking game the past two years, featuring the first two kickers that Charlie Weis has recruited, has had one signature trait: inconsistency. And we’re not talking about your typical college gamble on a 40+ yard field goal attempt either. This inconsistency is marked by the sound of every Notre Dame fan in the country collectively biting their fingernails whenever a 4th down inside the opponent’s 30 yard line or a kickoff approaches. But the most puzzling component of this personnel failure is that not only has this happened under some of the greatest recruiting classes that Notre Dame has ever secured, but that these are scholarship kickers.
Both Brandon Walker and Ryan Burkhart are proving to be the weak link in a rebounding young Irish team that can ill afford to leave points on the field. Already we have seen the inability to pin opponents inside the twenty on kickoffs and lack of production in field goal situations contributing to an often-misfiring offensive unit. As this season stretches on, the unreliability of the Notre Dame kicking game will continue to jeopardize close games and place undo stress upon a young offense that at times has struggled with mental errors.
Brandon Walker is latest Weis-era placekicker that has featured such mostly-dependable legs as D.J. Fitzpatrick and Carl Gioia however, unlike those blue-collar kickers of the past, Walker has continually struggled with accuracy in key situations. Although he has the leg strength to get the ball through the uprights on field goals of 40+ yards, all too often those attempts are wide to either side of the upright. Last season Walker was a merely adequate piece of a completely underachieving whole, converting six of twelve field goals and 22 of 23 extra points. One can’t help but think that the reason the kicking game didn’t come under greater scrutiny last season is that everyone was busy watching the Irish crash and burn on a weekly basis through most of the year: the sound of the wheels falling off the placekicking unit was drowned out by the wailing and gnashing of teeth directed at the abysmal offensive effort.
Walker’s erratic kicking has been even more evident this season he is currently two for twelve on fields goals through four games. While it’s undeniable that he has been slumping lately and I definitely don’t want to kick a man when he’s down—especially a college athlete—there are some conclusions we can draw from his play thus far. Namely, that Walker is out of his league placekicking at one of the most visible college sports programs in the country. He wasn’t very highly touted coming out of high school (he was actually more highly ranked as a punter) and hasn’t adapted well to the increased pressure of the college game. As bad as the placekicking situation might appear, there is another area on Notre Dame special teams that is under performing as much or more.
As I spent the majority of my teen years living in the town right next to Wakarusa, IN and graduated from the same high school as Ryan Burkhart, I had a startling sense of pride that a bona fide Notre Dame recruit was from my neighborhood. However, Burkhart has been perhaps the most disappointing scholarship player for his past three years at Notre Dame. His incendiary leg, which was widely praised coming out of high school after going seven for eight on 40+ yard field goals his junior year and managing to connect on a 53-yarder in the opening game of his senior campaign earned him a spot as the only kicker named to the Indiana Top 50 all-state team in 2005. Unfortunately, this same leg has been absolutely anemic since he arrived on campus. So weak in fact, that he didn’t see the field in his sophomore year.
After taking over for Bobby Renkes in the fourth game of the 2006 season against Michigan State, Burkhart performed admirably as a true freshman and completed the season as Notre Dame’s kickoff specialist. Mysteriously, Burkhart was withheld from action in his second year at Notre Dame, presumably due to unimpressive kickoffs on the practice field. Unfortunately it appears as though Burkhart was held out with good reason as his kickoffs this year have, more often than not, been missing the mark. There has been little to no evidence on the field of that formerly-impressive leg as Notre Dame is continually faced with opponents fielding the ball at around their own 10 yard line. This is an unacceptable result for a kicker at a big-time school.
Where do we go from here? Firstly, both Walker and Burkhart need to establish some—any—kind of consistency possible. If 30-yard field goals and kickoffs to the opposing five yard line are all that we can expect, let’s at least start to see some kind of regularity so we know what we can and cannot reasonably count on in game situations. I would consider this season a win for Walker if he were able to claw back to the .500 average on field goals from last year. Likewise, if Burkhart were able to show that he can dependably send the ball to the five yard line with an occasional touchback, I would breathe a bit easier for a considerable portion of the game each Saturday. The last thing the team needs this season is more inconsistency and adversity on the offensive side of the football to battle through.
Secondly, Charlie Weis (and Rob Ianello for that matter) needs to put some honest-to-Touchdown-Jesus effort into recruting a top-flight kicker. How hard a sell can it possibly be to a blue-chip high school kicker to commit to one of the year’s best recruiting classes, play in front of the entire nation every Saturday, get an Ivy league caliber education, and start immediately? I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better situation for a four or five-star kicking recruit. It’s readily apparent that something needs to be done this recruiting season and that we can ill afford to hang the future of the Irish kicking game on the feet of walk-ons or unrecruited scholarship players.