MINNEAPOLIS — At a position that’s fraught with mental challenges en route to a simple, physical act, Chris Hawthorne has endured multiple headiness tests.
The Gophers kicker headed north in search of a scholarship and more chances to split uprights after walking on North Carolina State his freshman year. Jerry Kill gave him both, as Hawthorne handled placekicking and kickoff duties for the first seven games of the 2011 season.
A torn quadriceps cost him his job the rest of that campaign. He’s yet to win it back.
Hawthorne returned healthy last fall, but senior Jordan Wettstein put forth a better August showing and beat him out. A 65-yard kickoff against New Hampshire and an onside kick versus Michigan were Hawthorne’s only moments of game action in 2012.
The guy that took his place and never gave it back has since graduated. Yet somehow, more obstacles than ever follow Hawthorne to and from practice every day, hoping to do the same thing Wettstein did. Four other kickers — two of whom are also involved in a four-man race for the No. 1 punter spot — technically have an opportunity to start in next Thursday’s season opener against UNLV.
Hawthorne has a leg up this time around, special teams coach Jay Sawvel said, but it’s not because of his past playing experience.
“You treat him like everybody else, but his own life experiences train him better than other people,” Sawvel said after Thursday’s practice. “They haven’t went through not being the kicker to where Chris, to his credit, has worked hard and done well.
“He’s performed pretty well in camp.”
But he’s not the only one.
Among the four freshman placekickers hoping to move past Hawthorne, Ryan Santoso would appear to have the best chance. Signing for a scholarship out of Pace (Fla.) High School, the Under Armour All-American was perfect on 29 PATs and made 14 of 17 field goals as a senior.
He’s built like a tight end, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 260 pounds, but he’s put enough time into the kicking game to earn a shot at hammering field goals, kickoffs and punts.
Sawvel said Santoso, Hawthorne and walk-on freshmen Andrew Harte, Justin Juenemann and Kyle Fodness have received equal reps with the kickoff and field goal units.
Every snap, hold and kick is an audition.
“You see who gets frustrated,” Sawvel said. “They know they’ve got ‘X’ number of kicks. They hit a bad one, this guy’s mad, this guy’s in a situation where he doesn’t like how he performed, well OK, what do you do on the next one? That’s where we’re at.”
That’s led Hawthorne to focus on keeping his emotions in check, even after some tough breaks the past two seasons.
“There’s a little bit of motivation there,” said Hawthorne, who made 6 of 9 field goals and 14 of 15 PAT attempts in 2011. “You never want to give up your spot, so to speak. But I got hurt, and Jordan came in and did a great job. He earned his spot. He earned his kicks last year. There’s just more motivation from with inside me to be the best that I can be. I just want to go out there and do my job, and try to give our team a chance every Saturday.”
Dan Orseske can relate to Hawthorne’s plight.
The fifth-year senior punter started all 12 games of his sophomore season before Christian Eldred usurped him last fall. Both are back and have a legitimate chance at earning the job this year, but Santoso and sophomore Peter Mortell — the Gophers’ holder on extra points and field goals last season — figure heavily in the mix, too.
Minnesota had better hope whoever wins out can do better than Eldred did in 2012, when the Gophers ranked dead last in the Big with a net yards-per-punt mark of 34.4.
This week, Swarvel set aside one practice for two of them to handle most of the scrimmage-scenario punting duties. The next day, the other two took their turn.
He’s put the kickers through similar tests — Thursday, each tried his hand at a series of live, long field goals ranging from 49 to 55 yards.
Each kick, kickoff and punt is charted and evaluated on film following practice, a tedious process when dealing with as many legs as Minnesota is this fall.
But while it might mean some more time in the film room, Swarvel maintains that bigger battles are better.
“It’s a lot different when you only have one guy that you’re competing against,” said Swarvel, who hopes to have his specialists depth chart set by Saturday. “Now, when you’ve got three or four people competing for something, it makes it difficult, and you do see where someone rises or someone falls based on competition.
Said head coach Jerry Kill: “We’ve charted all through camp and put them in situations. We put guys in situations today, and at the end of the day, we’ll make a decision on what’s best by all the data and all the information that we see.”
Edwards out but ‘fine’: After leaving practice on crutches Wednesday, freshman running back Berkley Edwards underwent X-rays that found no broken bones in his injured leg, Kill said.
“He’s fine,” the coach said. “He didn’t break his leg or anything like that. He got bent up, and I think it’s more of a — and I don’t think they still know today — he’s in a boot. It’s more of a high-ankle sprain type-deal. We don’t know, really, until things settle down if he’ll be ready to go or not be ready to go.”
A three-star prospect according to Scout.com, Edwards was reportedly having an impressive fall camp before his injury. Kill said he was “still learning” the offense, but Edwards’ 4.39-second 40-yard dash speed — if harnessed correctly — could provide a nice complement to the power running game of Donnell Kirkwood.
Tuesday on a Saturday: Minnesota’s players have the day off Friday, when coaches will meet and are expected to make final depth-chart determinations at most positions. The Gophers will practice Saturday and Sunday, treating the former like a typical Tuesday practice in preparation for next Thursday night’s home opener.
The team also has a press conference scheduled for Saturday before practice.