MADISON, Wis. — The Kyle French of last year would probably still be seething about missing a 38-yard field goal attempt wide right in practice on Thursday. He would agonize over his form, wonder if he would make the next one, compare his statistics to teammate Jack Russell and fear he might lose his starting spot.
In short, he would be so deep inside his own head that he’d suffocate his capacity to execute on the field, where one mistake snowballed into more.
“I know I have the leg and the athletic ability to be a Big Ten kicker,” French said. “But I don’t think last year I had the mental game ready and locked down to be a Big Ten kicker.”
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Admitting his shortcomings are part of the reason French has been able to pick himself up following a disappointing sophomore season. Understanding how to correct those mistakes is why he believes he’s in line for a much better junior campaign. And French credits his radical mental turnaround to the teachings of first-year special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk, who has instilled the value of focusing on the process of kicking and not the result.
“It’s helped me tremendously,” French said. “It literally clears your mind of what the situation is. If it’s a game-winning kick, obviously you know you’re in the game-winning kick situation. Stuff like that, it kind of clears your mind, just to really focus on that kick and not worry about the external environment around you. I think that’s where I’ve made the most improvement.”
A year ago, French did not possess nearly the same confidence as he has demonstrated this fall. He made 10 of 16 field-goal attempts, a clip of just 62.5 percent, while Russell missed both of his field goal tries last season. As a team, Wisconsin tied for 91st nationally in field goals made. Only 21 teams made fewer kicks. Wisconsin’s field-goal percentage overall (55.6) tied for 118th out of 124 teams.
For French, the longer the kick, the more he struggled. He made both of his kicks from inside 30 yards, 6 of 8 attempts from 30 to 39 yards and just 2 of 6 tries from 40 to 49 yards.
French also missed kicks at critical times that helped cost his team victories. He missed a 40-yard attempt in the fourth quarter against Ohio State — a game Wisconsin would go on to lose in overtime. He also missed a 44-yard attempt one week later during overtime against Penn State. Earlier in the overtime session, Penn State kicker Sam Ficken hit a 37-yarder, which proved to be the game-winning kick.
Over the team’s final four games, French was 0 for 3 on field goals. Wisconsin’s opponents, meanwhile, made six of their field-goal attempts. In college football, when conference and postseason games can be decided by a single possession, it was a considerable thorn in Wisconsin’s side.
Genyk arrived at Wisconsin after spending the past three seasons as special teams coordinator at Cal, where he worked with kicker Giorgio Tavecchio, who is now battling to be the starter with the Green Bay Packers. Genyk looked at only one of French’s field goal attempts on film — his overtime try against Penn State — and saw all he needed to see.
“I felt his physical presence was that of hoping to make it,” Genyk said. “You have no chance then. I looked at nothing else. I looked at what I saw in the spring and just tried to incorporate some of the mental things to improve his confidence, focusing on the process and not the result.”
Genyk helped calm French’s pre-snap anxiety by having him take a series of mental notes featuring the words 8-iron, operation and eyes.
The idea, Genyk told him, was that kicking resembled hitting an 8-iron in golf, a smooth shot without crushing the ball. Operation referred to the notion of concentrating on the technique and not the result. And eyes was a reminder for French to keep his eyes back and not twist his head to the left on his kicks.
In addition to those mental notes, Genyk also has asked his kickers to practice only field goal attempts from 42 yards and in. The only time a kicker tries from any distance longer is if the head coach requests. Though French said he considered his range to be out to 55 yards, Genyk admitted that any made field goal beyond 50 yards is considered a bonus at the college level.
“In a practice scenario, you want to be able to come off the field if you’re a specialist and you’ve kicked 25 field goals in a day, how about making 24 of 25?” Genyk said. “You walk off feeling pretty good. If you try 10 50-yarders, you’re not making them all. They’re very difficult. So that’s part of the process and part of the ritual we go through.”
And now back to that 38-yard field goal attempt during Thursday’s practice. French missed the kick about three feet to the right, and Russell followed up by making his attempt. All the anxious thoughts French would have sorted through in his head last year — about losing his starting spot to Russell or tallying statistics — have been replaced.
“He hit it true,” Genyk said. “The ball flight was good. You can hit a lot of good putts, and they don’t go in the hole. You have to have the same mindset.”
After a season-long struggle, French is learning to share his new coach’s opinion. And he’s hoping it will create better results on the field, even if he no longer has time to worry about it.
“This year, my main goal is to take one kick at a time,” French said. “So I miss this kick and I say, ‘All right, well I hit the ball well. I ended up missing it, but let’s get this next one.’ I don’t really think about it after that.
“My next kick, it’s the exact same mental process I had for that first kick. The main thing I kind of learned through coach Genyk is what happened on the first kick does not matter for that second kick.”