Skeptics come and skeptics go, but for Sam Ficken, a 1-of-5 performance at Virginia last season left him with plenty. And they never quite went away, despite his obvious improvements.
In 2013, there’s still some remaining. Whenever he hits a field goal, still, it’s a surprise to some. And to others, he’s still “turning a major corner.”
But in reality, Ficken is well past that corner. He’s been as solid as collegiate kickers come.
“All of last season, I knew I had all the ability in the world. I wouldn’t be in this situation if I didn’t,” Ficken said. “So really for me, it was just getting that experience, calming down in these situations and that’s what really helped me work on my fundamentals.”
Had he not ended last season that same way, maybe Ficken would be worried about his confidence. Oftentimes last season, coach Bill O’Brien opted to go for it on fourth down instead of trying a short field goal. Now, that’s not an issue.
O’Brien has placed a supreme amount of trust in his junior kicker this season. He gave Ficken shots from 36, 35 and 46 yards against Syracuse. Ficken hit all three. Then against Eastern Michigan, Ficken hit from 39.
A 57-yard miss that came up just a little short against Central Florida broke his school record for consecutive field goals (15), although he had nailed a 47-yarder a few minutes earlier.
Then, against Kent State, Ficken hit from 25 and 54 yards — the longest by a Penn State kicker since 1979 and the longest by a Nittany Lion in Beaver Stadium history.
“With the way last season ended, making those 10 straight, that really helped me in the offseason,” Ficken said. “I feel like I completed that season, now I’m able to focus on improving everyday I go out there and kick and improving on my fundamentals.”
Since last year’s loss to Ohio State, Ficken has hit 17-of-18 field goals, the lone miss being that 57-yard prayer against UCF. He’s clearly improved, even if outsiders are continually surprised by his success.
The sour taste from those Virginia misses was washed away by a strong finish.
“This team’s not living in the past. We’re moving forward,” defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “The Virginia game happened, and obviously he improved from that. You can’t knock a player for his past.”
“I think he’s kind of proven that he’s a capable kicker and a good kicker,” punt returner and safety Jesse Della Valle said. “He just lets his play speak for itself. I think people will see that.”
But what’s to credit for his turnaround?
First, it’s a more deliberate approach. He went from a two-and-a-half step motion to two steps in order to decrease his margin of error.
It's a very slight and subtle change, but take a look at the videos below. In the first, a missed field goal at Virginia as time expired, he takes 2.5 steps and seems slower to the ball.
In the second, 10 days ago against Kent State, he takes just two and has a more compact approach.
This offseason, Ficken worked with Chicago Bear and former Nittany Lion kicker Robbie Gould, who helped him improve that delivery and ensure his plant foot was in the right spot. He’s also added 12 pounds since the beginning of last season, according to the team’s official roster — a credit to strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald and the work they did together this summer, Ficken said.
O’Brien called Ficken the team’s most improved player — and even joked that he may have Ficken work with punter Alex Butterworth because of the turn around he made.
“I think Sam Ficken is a much improved kicker,” O’Brien said after Ficken hit three field goals against Syracuse. “Now it’s one game, and he has to continue to do that. And no one knows that better than him.”
That was just one game, but it’s carried over to the next three, and Ficken hopes it won’t stop there. He has the highest field goal percentage (87.5) in the Big Ten so far this season and won the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week award for his opening-day efforts against the Orange.
“I’m having a great season so far, but I can’t be complacent with what I’ve done,” Ficken said. “I’m always trying to be better and learning new things. I don’t want to say I’m turning the page and I’m happy with where I’m at, because I know I can do better. But it does feel good with the way this season has started for sure.”
Steven Petrella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @steve_petrella