NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The life of a kicker is possibly the loneliest lives on a football team. Kickers and punters don’t run with either the offense or the defense during the week. They are part of their own unique clique that is only called upon in certain parts of practice that are set apart for special teams time.
The life of a kicker does not get much better on game day. Kickers stay together in packs and got to the field when needed. Make a kick and you are the hero. Miss a kick, especially when the game is on the line, and you’re the goat; relegated to more seclusion.
Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza has had his share of both makes and misses this season – his first as his team’s full-time kicker. The sophomore was ND’s kickoff specialist last year and he started with that role this season before Nick Tausch suffered an early groin injury.
“It’s just been a blessing to be able to come out here,” Brindza said of his expanded role. “Having such a young career already…people are putting pressure on you – he’s a young kicker, what’s he gonna do with the pressure. Is he gonna fall or is he gonna be able to go out there and make it for his team.”
Brindza has made 14 of his 19 field goal attempts and has nailed all 17 extra point tries this season. He also has 21 touchbacks on his kickoffs and he finds himself working more and more about the details that go into succeeding at a high level at his craft.
“There are the little things that go into kicking,” Brindza said. “Just like the game of golf there are the littlest things that can cause the ball to drift and cause you to even miss the ball. It’s just the little things that you need to incorporate and practice and be able to have the maturity when you’re standing there not to just be lollygagging around and just stretch and just work on the tiniest bits of your form.”
Just as Notre Dame’s overall focus is about the team this season, the special teams have had more of a ‘team’ coaching emphasis since last year as well. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and head coach Brian Kelly have had a much bigger role in working with the specialists and having that extra attention has helped Brindza and the rest of the kickers focus on the finer points of their craft.
“Just having fluid motion,” Brindza said of one of his greatest daily points of emphasis. “That’s one thing he and coach Diaco have stressed a lot me and (punter Ben) Turk is fluid movement and motion not through our arms, but through our legs. It’s almost like a game of golf. You’ve gotta keep your head down and swing through and follow through and have confidence in it.”
Having Kelly involved in practice has also helped the head coach to stay constructive on the sidelines during games.
“He’s always been a guy to come up to you (and) tell you what you did wrong, but also help you get back to it and help you understand what you need to do and be able to give you the confidence to go back out there and not do that again,” Brindza said of Kelly’s feedback.
“He’s a guy that’s able to just truly help you on the field and off the field. He has two main things he wants in us – that’s physical toughness and mental toughness. Obviously the mental toughness is confidence. The physical toughness is going out there and having the mechanics to do that.”
The mental toughness comes into play after a miss. Brindza has had three of his five misses come in Notre Dame’s last two games. Two of them were in the win over BYU and one last week versus Oklahoma. Brindza says having a short memory after a miss is crucial.
“You just can’t think about it,” he said of a kicker’s thoughts after a missed field goal. “The only thing you can think about is ‘what did I do wrong’ and be able to go out there the next time and not do that. It’s like a quarterback going out there and throwing an interception. He’s not gonna come off the field and be like ‘Wow what did I do wrong?’ and dwell on that. He’s gonna think about it for a second and then he’s gotta erase it. You’ve gotta wipe it clean.”
Brindza has done an exceptional job of wiping those misses from his mind this year. All five of his missed field goals have come in the first or second quarter this season and he has been able to bounce back with big kicks later in more pressure-packed situations.
The sophomore from Canton, Mich. missed a first quarter field goal against Purdue only to connect from distances of 30 and 27 in the third and fourth quarters to give the Irish a 20-17 win. The latter kick came with just :07 seconds on the clock.
He missed from 40 and 28 yards in the first half two weeks ago versus BYU, but later connected on a 24-yard kick with 2:24 to play in the third quarter to pull the Irish to within 14-10 as they went on to win 17-14.Brindza also missed from 35 yards in the second quarter last week in Norman, but he came back with crucial makes from 44 and 46 yards in the fourth quarter while the game’s outcome was still in doubt.
The 44-yarder put the Irish up 13-6, while the 46-yarder put Notre Dame up 23-13 with 3:22 to play.
“It was one of those times that you had to be able to come through and make a big kick and have confidence in being able to get it through the uprights,” Brindza recalled this week. “That kick was able to ice the game a little and put us up by more than just one score. It was truly a blessing for the team to put me in that opportunity and to just be able to go out there and prove to them that I’m here for the team to help in any way.”
Brindza’s only other miss this season came at the end of the first half of a Miami game that the Irish would win 41-3.
Whether it has been at home or in hostile environments like Michigan State and Oklahoma, Brindza has been able to put his blinders on in crucial situations. He says finding that focus – the mental toughness his coach demands – is the key to his success.
“You just don’t think about it,” Brindza explained. “You don’t think about the crowd. You just go out there and do what you have to do and truly just think on your task at hand and that’ll put points on the board.”
“Oklahoma is the biggest one - going into such a hostile crowd and everyone putting the odds against you. Us being able to go out there as a team and truly relying on one another and then me being able to go in there and prove to the team that they can rely on me.”
With every win comes more pressure to continue the team’s success this season. The stakes get larger and larger and the margin for error gets smaller and smaller – especially considering the outcome of six of ND’s eight wins has been in doubt going into the fourth quarter this season. He is just a sophomore, but Brindza has thus far thrived in those pressure situations this season.
“I like the pressure, but there’s a lot more pressure situations to come and I’m here for the team.”