No game epitomized the struggles Southern had in the kicking game last year better than a 22-21 loss at Arkansas-Pine Bluff in late October.
Matt Hill went 1-for-2 on field goal attempts and shanked an extra point in the first quarter. Manuel Canto had an extra point blocked on the game’s final play, robbing the Jaguars of overtime.
But the issues in the kicking game were a yearlong epidemic, prompting coach Stump Mitchell to go for it on fourth down 22 times and helping hold back a team that lost four games by 13 points.
“We would have been better if so many other things were better as well,” Mitchell said. “The kicking game is no different than offense or defense. We can’t put it solely on the kicking game. We have to improve as a team.”
But improving the kicking game is certainly a priority, one of the more important — if not more glamorous — story lines as the Jaguars prepare to begin Mitchell’s third season.
While their teammates bang pads in the distance, Hill, now a junior, and freshman Greg Pittman go toe-to-toe in a race for the kicker’s job.
“We’re at it every day, trying to battle it out on the field,” Pittman said.
Canto did most of the kicking for Southern last year, making only 4 of 8 field goals and 13 of 17 extra points as a senior.
Hill was given a shot to steal the job midway through the season, but converted only one of two field goals and 9 of 12 extra points.
“Competition for everything is open until the week we get ready to go to Albuquerque,” said Mitchell, whose Jaguars open at New Mexico on Sept. 1. “Then we’ll name our starters.”
Hill and Pittman are working under new Southern special teams coach Marty Biagi, a former kicker and punter at Marshall whose experience includes stops at Arkansas and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, coaching defensive backs.
Biagi said the pre-snap technique he teaches kickers is similar to what he has taught cornerbacks and safeties.
“A lot of coaches don’t realize, kicking is just like any other position,” Biagi said.
Biagi should be able to make a big impact on a player like Hill, who played soccer at East Central (Miss.) Community College before arriving on Southern’s practice fields last summer. He had never before played football.
With his inexperience last year, Mitchell said he thought Hill gravitated to Canto, picking up “some bad habits” along the way.
“What he needs to do, since he emulates Manny so well, is watch some pro football and emulate those guys and put it through the uprights,” Mitchell said.
Hill said Mitchell was probably referring to the habitual “shoulder shake” Canto performed before kicks.
“I guess I accidentally picked that up,” Hill said.
Hill said he has ditched the bit with his shoulders, but it remains to be seen if he’ll have the leg to beat out Pittman during camp.
Mitchell offered Pittman, who finished his high-school career at Helen Cox after kicking for Ben Franklin the previous three years, a scholarship hoping he’d be the answer to Southern’s woes. Even though he is behind Hill in classification, he began kicking field goals about eight years earlier.
“I walked into the Little League park as the biggest kid there, had the strongest leg and kicked the ball the farthest,” Hill said, recalling a story from his childhood. “It took off from there.”
But with his 18th birthday still weeks away, it’s hard to know how the baby-faced newcomer would respond to the pressure of delivering a game-winner.
“There’s been pressure enough coming in as the new kicker and having to prove a lot to my teammates,” Pittman said. “I really feel if I can continue to handle the pressure in practice well, I can go in the game and hit a game-winning field goal as if there was no pressure at all.”
Whether it’s Pittman or Hill, the Jaguars hope one of the two will answer the call.
Advocate sportswriter Mike McCall contributed to this report.