Arkansas' Hocker to handle all kicking duties
Zach Hocker wasted little time coming to the point during his first meeting with new Arkansas coach Bret Bielema.
Hocker, already one of the most accomplished kickers in Razorbacks' history entering his senior season, told Bielema shortly after his hiring last December that wanted to achieve more. He wanted to add the job of punter to his field goal and kickoff duties.
Bielema promised to consider Hocker's request that day, though he made it clear he'd have to earn all the jobs. Hocker proved himself that throughout preseason camp, and when Arkansas opens its season next week against Louisiana-Lafayette, he'll be a one-man ensemble at the kicker position.
The collection of pressure-packed jobs might be more than some can handle. But Hocker views his newly added duty as just a return to the same workload he handled in high school.
''I'm going to compete at anything I can,'' Hocker said. ''If I was in the running for a field position, I'm going to try my hardest to get on the field.''
Hocker's health was initially one of Bielema's biggest concerns as it became clear the kicker was Arkansas' best option at each position. To alleviate any worries about overworking him, Bielema monitored the kicker's workload during preseason camp.
It's a philosophy of quality over quantity that Bielema plans to carry into the season - giving Hocker Wednesdays and Fridays off from practice during the week in an attempt to keep his right leg fresh.
''We've got to make sure we don't, obviously, tap out his leg,'' Bielema said.
Hocker enters this season with 287 points in his career, just seven shy of the school record Bill Burnett set from 1968-70, and he's just 12 field goals short of tying Todd Wright's career school record of 60.
The Russellville, Ark., native provided an element of stability when took the field for the Razorbacks, connecting on 16 of 19 field goals as a freshman during the 2010 season. He followed that up with a 21-of-27 effort as a sophomore, setting the school single-season record for points by a kicker with 118.
However, last season Hocker struggled with consistency - much like the rest of an Arkansas team that finished 4-8 in the wake of Bobby Petrino's firing. He finished 11 of 18 on field goals.
''It was just an uncharacteristic year for me,'' Hocker said. ''I just wasn't in the rhythm. I think that's how it was for almost the whole entire team last season with all the stuff going on. I just never felt that comfortable stage like I had my freshman and sophomore year.''
Hocker spent part of the offseason talking with other kickers, including punter Tim Masthay from the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead and Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee, about the mental part of the position. He said he's learned how to focus better week to week, leaving mistakes in the past and not letting them interfere with the present.
That work was on display during Arkansas' only open scrimmage of the preseason, during which he blasted a 68-yard punt - a clear sign he's had no trouble returning to the position he was originally recruited for by the Razorbacks. Hocker also connected on a 57-yard field goal during the scrimmage.
Bielema said he was standing next to an NFL scout during one practice when Hocker blasted a pair of kickoffs, one to the back of the end zone and the other into the bleachers behind it. He said the scout was amazed Hocker was handling all three positions so well.
''It goes to show you what confidence does for a kicker,'' Bielema said. ''He is liking life right now. I think he's enjoying what we're doing. He knows we're going to take care of him.
''We're going to take care of his body, we're resting him the right way, and he is stroking the ball as good as anybody I've been around.''