Brett Vito: Kicking with job security

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“Football kickers are like taxi cabs. You can always go out and hire another one.”

— Buddy Ryan

 

At least that’s the case when you’re a coach in the NFL like Buddy Ryan was during the height of his career.

College coaches aren’t so lucky.

Ryan’s take on kickers and the difference when it comes to the pro game and college came to mind Saturday night after North Texas saved its season — or at least kept hope alive that it can make a run at a bowl game — with a 20-14 win over Florida Atlantic.

UNT is 2-3, its best start since 2005.

One can credit UNT’s defense largely for that turn of events. The Mean Green came up huge again.

Just don’t forget Zach Olen.

He might not have been fired, but he came about as close as a college kicker can get to it last week.

Of course, being fired might have been less painful for Olen if UNT head coach Dan McCarney had the option and exercised it after Olen missed a couple of field goals in a 14-7 loss to Troy, just one week after having a field goal blocked and missing an extra point in a loss to Kansas State.

That’s one of the downfalls of college coaching. Unlike Ryan, McCarney didn’t have the option of ditching his kicker and calling a veteran lounging on a couch somewhere.

So McCarney did the next best thing.

He said Olen’s job was open and would be determined between three contestants in practice, and he pretty much ran Olen through the ringer.

UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said that the Mean Green put all kinds of pressure on Olen during practice. I don’t know if his teammates threatened to duct-tape Olen to the goal post or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.

McCarney is at the tail end of his coaching career and wants to make the most of his second shot at being a head coach after a great run at Iowa State.

“Losing sucks,” McCarney likes to say. “I can’t stand it. I hate it.”

McCarney has said he hopes this is the last stop in his career.

Not sure if I would want to be a guy on the roster standing between McCarney and his goal to make that stop a successful one.

Olen could have ended up being an obstacle, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t have blamed him one bit if he ended up having confidence issues after the last few weeks.

The book on kicking is that it’s largely about having an unwavering belief that an oblong ball that wasn’t designed to be kicked in a straight line is going to where it’s supposed to go.

“I had to trust in myself and my ability,” Olen said.

And he had to do it at a time when not everyone was giving him a ringing endorsement, at least not publically. When asked last week about Olen’s history of making big kicks for UNT, McCarney answered by pointing out that the Mean Green was one of the worst teams in the Sun Belt last season when it came to kicking field goals.

He didn’t even acknowledge that having three blocked was part of the reason Olen hit only half of his 16 attempts.

That could have been an issue if Olen didn’t have supreme confidence in himself at a time when it would have been easy to lose it.

That confidence showed against FAU as Olen made all four of his kicks that counted — two field goals and two extra points.

He also made two that didn’t count in key spots.

UNT put together a clock-killing drive and got into field goal range late in the fourth quarter before stalling. Olen hit from 36 yards out only to have that field goal wiped off the board by a penalty that gave UNT a first down.

Then he hit from 39 yards, only to have the score taken away by another penalty that gave UNT another first down.

It seemed to set UNT up for disaster late after two makes were taken off the board, but Olen came through a third time, knocking a 28-yarder through.

“I wish it would have stayed on there the first time,” Olen said of the three points from his first kick that wasn’t counted. “It was good to have the practice, and when it counted I made it.”

Olen didn’t have to make a game winner, the highest of pressure situations for a kicker, but he did score eight points in a six-point win.

“I am really proud of Zach.” McCarney said. “We opened up the competition to three kickers like we said we would, and he won it. He stepped on the field with tremendous confidence. You could see the look in his eye that, no matter when or where, he was going to make it. Those three points came off the board a couple of times, but he kept coming in there and stroking it right down the middle.”

That says something about Olen, who hung in there when times were tough.

“I want to thank all the coaches and players for encouraging me and believing in me,” Olen said.

No one is firing Olen now.

“We don’t want anyone kicking the football for us other than Zach Olen,” Thompson said. “I want to make that very clear.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com .

 


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