COLUMBIA, Mo. — All-SEC kickers are made not so much from the hips down, but from the neck up. And so after hearing a small-group lecture at a kicking camp this summer from Dr. Marty Martinez about failure — not fearing it, accepting it, using it as a springboard to bigger and better things — Andrew Baggett pressed Martinez to go deeper, to help him trap that elusive butterfly of zen.
"Really, he (was) one of those kids, rather than asking, ‘How do I be a consistent kicker,’ it was, ‘How do I deepen my confidence to stay a confident or consistent kicker?’" recalls Martinez, a sports psychologist at Iowa State who worked with the Missouri Tigers’ kicker at Kohl’s Kicking Camp in Wisconsin late last month. "I think he really grew from that."
So the new Baggett is a lot like the old Baggett, only with a shorter memory, a keener focus and less abject fear.
Especially on the big stage.
"Winter break, I got a good look back," says the junior kicker from Lee’s Summit, Mo., whose 24th-ranked Tigers host South Dakota State in their season opener Saturday at Memorial Stadium. "And honestly, I was kind of being somewhat — not stressed, but so hard, it was almost being destructive a little bit. So now, if I miss a kick, ‘I missed one, I’ll miss more. Focus on the next one. Go back and look at film.’ The only thing I can control is the next one."
Baggett connected on 18-of-25 field-goal attempts for last fall’s SEC East champions. Of his 100 kickoff attempts, 62 went for touchbacks — the second-highest total in the Football Bowl Subdivision. And yet an otherwise good season was defined, to the general public, by a left upright. A stinking, words-your-grandmother-would-slap-you-for left upright.
Baggett doinked a 24-yarder off the stupid thing last Oct. 26 in overtime to seal a 27-24 home loss to South Carolina. The next weekend, during a 31-3 rout of Tennessee, he hit it again. The Tigers won the SEC East anyway, and he wrapped up the year connecting on five of his last six attempts during a 12-2, magic-carpet ride of a campaign.
"You know, hindsight is 20-20," Baggett says now. "I think last year was probably the best thing (as) a growing experience for me."
The lesson: Let it go. Just like the song. What’s it going to be: Hero? Or head case?
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"He didn’t just talk about one blown thing, one blown kick," says Martinez, who has worked with NFL veterans, collegians and Olympians such as Lolo Jones and Cael Sanderson. "He talked about how to continue to have a consistent mindset that combines both a deep focus and a deep composure, regardless of what your last kick was. And he did a great job with that."
Get the head right, Martinez reminded him, and the leg — more often than not — tends to follow.
"I think kicking, when you get to this level, it’s almost all mental," Baggett says. "It’s all muscle memory. It’s just BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. We’ve got less than a second-and-a-half to get it off. If you try to get upstairs and worry about ‘Oh, the wind,’ and worry about other things, you’re probably just not helping yourself out at all."
And with a schedule that features visits to South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee, the 2014 Tigers will need all the help they get, especially at nail-biting time. Dating back to the 2010 Insight Bowl, over Mizzou’s last 40 contests, nine have been decided by six points or fewer. The Tigers are 4-5 in those tilts, 0-2 in SEC play — and none more painful than the Baggett carom that ended Mizzou fans’ dreams last October of an undefeated season.
"I’ve never had anybody say anything to my face," says Baggett, who was tabbed for third-team All-SEC preseason honors by league coaches. "I like the comment that (former Mizzou guard) Max (Copeland) said last year, (about how) there’s no accountability when you say stuff on social media.
"Really and honestly, I’m not too concerned about what other people outside this (Mizzou Athletics Training Complex) building say."
Power isn’t up for debate — Baggett has a similar career percentage from 40 yards out or longer (11 for 16, .688) that he does from between 20 and 29 yards (9 for 13, .692). But it’s the sub-30 attempts where the consistency, the mental side, can sink the ship or propel it forward.
"Andrew stuck out to me early as a guy who, talent-wise, could compete with pretty much everybody in college football," says Jamie Kohl, an ex-Iowa State-kicker-turned-instructor whose clientele includes Pat McAfee of the Indianapolis Colts and Tim Masthay of the Green Bay Packers.
When Baggett first turned up to one of Kohl’s camps three summers ago, he dug the way the ball came off the kid’s foot — the speed, the rotation, the distance. They’ve stayed in touch, too; after the South Carolina setback, Kohl made a point to send him a text message of support.
"You know, the hardest part is going to be if he’s in that pressure situation again, just to fight the memories of the previous one," Kohl says of last year’s Homecoming miss. "Because it’s easy to be bold, it’s easy to have no fear, it’s easy to do that when you’re naive to the ramifications. Well, he knows the ramifications, having gone to class and having had everybody look at you and having walked around campus — it’s not fun. It’s not.
"Whereas (with) a seasoned veteran, there’s a saying, and it’s true: ‘If you play long enough, you’ll miss a big kick. Flat-out, it will happen. Now I guess the beauty of being a good kicker is, you have to prove it, week in and week out. And in the upcoming year, he’s going to have a chance to prove that either A, he is over it, or B, he is what he is. I’m just telling you, talent-wise, Mizzou cannot go out and recruit a kid who’s going to have more talent than him. They just can’t."
To illustrate his point, Kohl recounts a drill from this past summer. He had punters and kickers from the same school — Tigers Baggett and Christian Brinser, in this case — pair up for a competition a little like the scramble format in golf: Punters would start the game by launching a ball from the very back of the end zone; wherever that particular shot landed was where his placekicking teammate would have to set up for a field goal.
"It’s one of those things where everybody at camp is looking at him and he’s got to make it," Kohl recalls.
Baggett did. The event went to the duo from Mizzou.
"He can be an All-SEC kicker, in my estimation," Kohl says, "if he just allows that natural ability to show."