O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Lions' youth movement at kicker

Posted May 26, 2014

If Nate Freese performs to the level the Lions expect, he will be only the third rookie in 33 years to kick for the Lions on opening day.

The Lions’ youth movement at kicker has accelerated from shaving a few years of age off the position last year to lopping off a couple of decades this year.

A year ago, franchise icon Jason Hanson retired after 21 Hall of Fame-worthy seasons – 1992 through 2012, all with the Lions. Hanson was 42 in his last season.

Hanson’s replacement, David Akers, turned 39 in December of the 2013 season that proved to be his only as a Lion. It was his 16th in the NFL, with previous stops in Washington (1 game), Philadelphia (12 years) and San Francisco (2 years).

Rookie Nate Freese, a seventh-round draft pick from Boston College, brings a fresh face – and leg – to the Lions. Freese is 23, two full decades younger than Hanson. If Freese performs to the level the Lions expect, he will be only the third rookie in 33 years to kick for the Lions on opening day.

Eddie Murray in 1980 and Hanson in 1992 were Detroit’s other opening-day rookies and formed the two golden links in a 33-year chain of kicking excellence.

This week’s Memorial Day Weekend Countdown focuses on kickers, the Lions’ situation specifically, and some quirks and quotes related to the position in general. There are historical factors related to the position and Murray’s view on how the talent pool has changed.

There’s also a look at the last five minutes of Freese’s next-to-last regular-season college game and how factors out of his control gave him an imperfect record on one kick and a perfect record on the other.

We start with Lions Coach Jim Caldwell and his view of starting a season with a rookie kicker:

1. Rookie precedent: The fact that he was drafted makes Freese the favorite to win the kicking job. Giorgio Tavecchio, who kicked at Cal-Berkeley and had training-camp tryouts the last two years with the 49ers and Packers, also is in camp.

Caldwell didn’t express any concern about starting the season with a rookie kicker when asked about it after rookie minicamp a week ago.

“I’ve been there before,” Caldwell said. “A couple years ago with Baltimore, we had a young guy that kicked pretty well as a first-year kicker.”

Caldwell was offensive coordinator when the 2012 Ravens won the Super Bowl. The “young guy” was rookie Justin Tucker, who made 30 of 33 field-goal attempts in the regular season and all 4 in the playoffs. Tucker went 2-for-2 in the Ravens’ 34-31 Super Bowl victory over the 49ers.

Freese and HansonNate Freese and Jason Hanson (Photo: Detroit Lions)

2. Hanson’s veteran hand: Hanson has worked with the Lions’ rookie kickers this year, starting before the draft, when he was invited by special teams coordinator John Bonamego to work with John Potter and Tavecchio. Potter was released before the draft.

“It was pretty awesome to meet him,” Freese said. “I just kind of picked his brain – ‘What did you do your first minicamp? What’s your routine?’”

In an interview I did with Hanson a month ago, he referred to his presence as “another set of eyes.”

It is unfair to everyone, Hanson included, to project the possibility that the “set of eyes” could become the leg if the need arose. It is not Hanson’s nature to hang around to remind people how good he was to the last minute of his 21-season career.

Is it possible? I think it is, but it’s far short of a 50-50 proposition.

3. Freese’s miss: He made 40 of 41 extra-point attempts in 2013. It was notable because his record on field goals was 20-for-20. How could a kicker who was perfect on field goals miss an automatic extra point?

The missed PAT came against Maryland. BC had scored a touchdown with 5:02 left to take a 26-24 lead. Freese’s automatic extra point would make it 27-24.

However, the kick was blocked and returned the distance by Maryland’s Anthony Nixon. Under NCAA rules, Maryland got two points and a 26-26 tie.

“Some guy broke up the middle and got a piece of it and tipped it straight up,” Freese said last week. “Then they returned it. It was kind of a crazy situation. I could have done better, I think, and gotten it over his hand.”

With five minutes left, Freese had time to be a hero or a goat.

4. Goat: Freese’s 20-for-20 record on field goals in 2013 is accurate, but he had one big miss that didn’t count.

On the last play of the Maryland game, Freese was wide left from 52 yards, apparently sending the game into overtime.

However, Maryland Coach Randy Edsall had called time just before the kick, making it no play.

5. The perfect hero: No surprise ending here. Given a second chance, Freese’s 52-yarder was good as time ran out to give Boston College a 29-26 victory and make his official record on field goals for the season 20-for-20.

6. Moral of the story: Never try to freeze a kicker named Freese.

7.  Foreign kicker invasion: Pete Gogolak, who was born in Hungary, is considered the first soccer-style kicker. He kicked in college for Cornell and for 11 pro seasons with the Bills (1964-65) and Giants (1966-74). Gogolak’s success started the foreign invasion of kickers.

When Murray made it to the NFL as the Lions’ seventh-round draft pick in 1980, NFL rosters were dominated by foreign-born kickers. According to available research, in 1980 the regular kicker on 17 of the 28 NFL teams was born outside the United States, although some went to American colleges.

Murray, born in Canada, played at Tulane.

8. America comes back kicking: For years, every NFL team has used a soccer-style kicker for field goals and extra points, but most of them are home grown. In 2013, only three teams had a primary kicker who was born outside the U.S.

The Steelers’ Shaun Suisham, who has kicked for three teams in nine seasons, was born in Canada and played at Bowling Green.

Sebastian Janikowski of the Raiders, was born in Poland and played at Florida State. He was drafted in the first round by the Raiders in 2000.

Graham Gano of the Panthers was born in Scotland and played at Florida State.

9. Culture change: Murray says that the pool of American kicking specialists has gotten bigger because of the increase in the number of kids who play soccer in school and the proliferation of kicking camps.

“Everyone has a kicking camp,” Murray said. “If you research kicking camps, I’ll lay you money that half the guys, you won’t know. I’m not disparaging their knowledge. Of course, they must have kicked somewhere.

“There are a lot more camps out there, so you can develop kids in the U.S.”

Freese said he played 12 years of soccer and became the regular kicker in his junior season at Strongsville (Ohio) High School.

10.   Proposed sanction: It didn’t sound good for international relations, but the late Norm Van Brocklin’s comment on soccer-style kickers showed that his wit was as sharp as the arm that made him a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Van Brocklin was head coach of the Vikings (1961-66) and Eagles (1968-74), and after losing a game in on a  barrage of field goals was asked what could be done about the proliferation of soccer-style kickers.

“Tighten the immigration laws,” Van Brocklin snapped.