MADISON, Wis. — If there is one thing Kyle French has learned from his yearlong starting kicker battle with Jack Russell, it’s that thinking on the field — about mechanics, crowd noise, game situation, anything — is never good. Thinking about losing a starting spot? That’s even worse.
This week, as French and Russell continue a seemingly endless competition to take over the No. 1 kicking duties for Wisconsin, French says he and Russell have reached a solution.
“I think both of us have just overanalyzed everything,” French said after Wednesday’s practice. “We took all these, ‘OK you’re the backup,’ too hard on ourselves saying, ‘What am I doing wrong? What can I do better?’ I think we’ve just been in our own heads ever since. We’ve been pulled, put back in and pulled. So I think both of us just are kind of jumping on to let’s just kick and have fun. When you think about stuff is when you start to mess up.”
Well, that’s a start. The true measure of success, however, will be determined by the number of times kicks sail through the uprights — something that hasn’t come easily for either kicker this season or last.
A year ago, French made 10 of 16 field goals and was so unsteady at times that Russell took his starting spot. But Russell missed both of his field-goal attempts, and French ultimately won his job back.
This season, French began as the No. 1 kicker and made 1 of 2 field-goal attempts in the season opener against UMass. But French missed an extra point off the right upright with Wisconsin leading 34-0 in the third quarter Saturday against Tennessee Tech and was benched for the rest of the game.
French, a junior, said the miss was the result of both mechanical and mental hiccups.
“All game I just wasn’t hitting a very clean ball,” he said. “In warmups and in the week of practice I was hitting a very clean ball. I was confused why during the game my extra points were not being hit very clean. I was pulling a lot of them to the left, and I was confused by that. I tried to keep every kick its own separate entity. I think subconsciously, something happened where my hip opened up a little bit and I just pushed it to the right there.”
Russell, a sophomore, handled two kickoffs and two extra points and seemed to be building confidence. That is, until his 31-yard field-goal attempt in the final minute sailed wide right.
“Definitely missing that field goal didn’t help my case,” Russell said.
In his career, Russell has yet to make a field goal, going 0 for 3.
“It’d be nice to get that off my chest,” he said. “It’s a little bit frustrating because I’ve had some pretty good opportunities to make one. I try not to think about that. The more I think about that, then I’ll start to mess up more.”
Badgers coach Gary Andersen essentially declared an open competition between both kickers earlier in the week ahead of Wisconsin’s game Saturday night at Arizona State. And both kickers said the competition was evident during Wednesday’s practice.
French noted the kickers hit about 10 kicks throughout practice ranging from 19 to 48 yards. French made all of his kicks and said Russell made all but one or two.
Russell said they even switched holders for the first time this season. Russell went with starting punter Drew Meyer, who usually handles French’s kicks. French’s kicks were handled by backup punter Stephen Salata.
French would appear to be in the best position to maintain the starting kicking job because of his experience in big games. He has played in 23 games, while Russell has appeared in nine.
Neither player has been informed just yet as to which man will handle kicks against Arizona State. But the competition between them seems far from over.
“I feel very confident,” French said. “I know Jack feels very confident. Jack and I honestly have no clue who’s going to be the starter come game time. I think last year compared to this year, last year when we did’t really know it was kind of more like, ‘OK, this is annoying. We want to know how to get prepared for this game.’ This year, we just both want to have fun.”
Watt probable: Fullback Derek Watt said Tuesday that he expected to play in Saturday’s game against Arizona State. Watt missed last week’s game against Tennessee Tech after suffering a hamstring injury during the second half against UMass.
“It’s kind of a frustrating thing where we had to take it slow at first,” Watt said. “We didn’t want to rush back and have any of that happen. They’re still a little worried about that. But I’m trying to get back out here with my teammates and just try to get back in the fight. Obviously we’re not being dumb with it and pushing it too soon, but I’ve kind of shown a lot of progress and we’re doing everything we can.”
Running backs coach Thomas Hammock said Watt would provide a boost for Wisconsin’s offense if he returned.
“He’s experienced,” Hammock said. “He knows what we expect on each play and he can go out there and get the job done. That’s what he did the first game and that’s what he’s going to continue to do as the season goes along.”
Derek Straus started in place of Watt last week and recorded the first touchdown of his career — something Watt has yet to achieve.
“Coach Hammock gave me more about it than he did,” Watt said. “I’m proud of him. But I’ll get one.”