MADISON, Wis. — Each day on the Camp Randall Stadium turf this August, two hours of practice comes down to four field-goal attempts.
For Kyle French and Jack Russell, the moments are especially nerve-wracking. Members of Wisconsin’s football team encircle the special teams units, screaming and heckling in the direction of French and Russell. How they handle the jeers — and more specifically whether they kick the ball through the uprights during this rapid-fire drill — determines which player will be the Badgers’ starting field-goal kicker.
“It definitely is a job audition,” Russell said. “I think they try and do it so we have to think about it all practice and go out there and have the team around us.”
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The competition is far from over, but through two weeks, Russell has been especially impressive in those end-of-practice scenarios. As a result, he finds himself at the top of the field-goal kicking depth chart despite being a true freshman.
Still, both kickers understand the battle remains fluid because the outcome of their attempts differs daily.
For example, on Monday — the same day the team’s depth chart was released with Russell at No. 1 — Russell made 2 of 4 attempts, while French drilled all four.
On Tuesday, Russell hit 3 of 4 attempts, and French made 2 of 4. Russell hit from 29, 35 and 40 yards before missing short from 50 yards on his final attempt. French made from 26 and 33 yards and missed wide right from 42 yards and short from 49 yards.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema said the starter might not be decided until days before Wisconsin opens its season against Northern Iowa on Sept. 1. At the very least, he expects both kickers to contribute in some capacity. While Russell is listed as the starting field-goal and extra-point kicker, French is No. 1 on kickoff duty.
French, a third-year sophomore, has the edge in experience, although he doesn’t possess quite the same leg strength as Russell. Last season, French filled in as the starting field-goal kicker for the first four games when Phillip Welch went down with an injury. During that time, French made 3 of 5 attempts. He also made 26 of 27 extra-point attempts on the season.
“When it came to the first four games, what I really got out of it is just having that confidence that you can come out here in front of 80,000 fans or go to an away game and have that confidence,” French said. “It’s the same thing as if it was just the snapper, holder, kicker and no one around. I think I became a lot more confident in those first four games.”
French actually began fall practice as the team’s No. 1 field-goal kicker, but he struggled during the second week of practices, ceding the spot to Russell.
French said he was reaching his spot too quickly and wrapping around his kicks, making every ball curl off to the left. After consulting with assistant coach Charlie Partridge, he determined that his adrenaline level was too high, causing him to rush his kicks.
“I was doing things that I’ve never done before in my form,” French said. “My mind was kind of doing things to my legs that I don’t normally do. We worked on that a lot. Now I’m working on a nice tempo to the ball, and I’m hitting a lot cleaner on field goals.”
Russell, meanwhile, has been steady throughout camp. And he credits the tutelage of former Wisconsin kicker Taylor Mehlhaff for helping to prepare him for the college game.
The two became friends about a year and a half ago, according to Russell, when he attended one of Mehlhaff’s kicking camps. Mehlhaff offered Russell private lessons, and they have remained in contact ever since.
Mehlhaff, a two-time All-Big Ten performer at Wisconsin, was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL draft. He is now a specialists coach at the University of Tennessee.
“We have an extremely close relationship,” Russell said. “He just called me last night to kind of congratulate me and ask about everything else, how camp is going. I would almost consider him family now. He came to my graduation party. He’s been over at my house for dinner. He’s part of the reason I’m here.”
Bielema compared Russell to Mehlhoff on Monday, citing Russell’s immense room for growth.
“He’s very confident,” Bielema said. “A very mature kid even though he looks like he’s 10. He acts like he’s 25. I think Jack’s got a lot of upside.”
Whether that upside is good enough to hold on to the starting field-goal role will be determined during the next 10 days of practice.
“The fact that so far they have me at No. 1 field-goal guy, it’s definitely humbling,” Russell said. “I know there’s a lot of pressure that comes with it, and I know my teammates are going to help me through that.”
Two leave program: Junior wide receiver Manesseh Garner and sophomore defensive back Jameson Wright have left the Wisconsin football program and will explore transfer options, Bielema announced Tuesday.
“I met with Manasseh and Jameson and they both informed me they wanted to pursue their options of playing somewhere else,” Bielema said in a release. “In talking to them, I realized this was a tough decision for each of them because they enjoyed their time as Badgers, but it was something they felt was in their best interests.
“I told them we would help in any way we could to facilitate their transition to a new school. Both Manasseh and Jameson are great kids who come from terrific families and were tremendous representatives of our program. We wish them both the best of luck.”
Garner, a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., played in 20 games for Wisconsin and did not redshirt. He spent most of his freshman season on the defensive side of the ball and was a contributor on special teams. He made the permanent switch to wide receiver as a sophomore and caught two passes for 45 yards.
Wright was in his third year with the Badgers. The Fort Pierce, Fla., native redshirted as a true freshman and did not see game action last year.