Some coaches can’t watch.
Kevin Kinsler did.
As Devon Pike lined up his potential game-winning field goal, Kinsler, Northside’s then-defensive coordinator, looked on with the full confidence that the Eagles’ place-kicker would convert. He was right, and Pike drilled an 18-yard field goal at the Georgia Dome to beat Tucker in the GHSA Class AAAA semifinals.
“I don’t have a weak heart when it comes to that stuff,” said Kinsler, who is now the head coach at Northside. “It helps that we have a lot of confidence in our kickers and special teams guys.”
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Northside went on to win a state championship in 2008, but that opportunity would have never come without Pike’s clutch kick or without other big moments involving the kicking game throughout the season. That’s the case for most football teams, with the good ones usually being punctuated by strong play from that unit and the bad ones often having their kicking inadequacies exposed at the worst possible time.
“There’s no doubt that having a strong kicking game can be a game-changer,” Dublin head coach Roger Holmes said.
Nearly every coach can recount games in which a field goal or extra point has won or lost them a game.
Kinsler said his team had four or five games last year decided by kicks. The Eagles won when Valdosta missed a handful of field goals. They beat Lowndes when backup kicker Dillon Mixon made a late field goal and held on when the Vikings missed a game-tying field goal at the buzzer. The Eagles lost in last year’s state championship game largely in part to two touchdowns on kick returns that pushed Camden County out in front quickly.
Both FPD and Tattnall Square have lost state championship games because of missed extra points.
Some schools won’t even attempt field goals and often go for two-point conversions throughout games.
The kicking game is an aspect of the game that can be overlooked by fans, but every high school coach knows its importance. Because high school coaches can’t recruit players, they have to make due with what they have on campus each year. That can lead to spotty play from the special teams.
“I’ve had kickers before, but we really haven’t had a consistent guy since (he has been at Southwest),” Patriots head coach Carror Wright said. “It would help tremendously, and it definitely makes a difference.”
Wright determines kicking based on his team’s first extra point attempt each game. If his kicker makes it, then Southwest will continue attempting extra points. If he misses, the Patriots will attempt a two-point conversion after every touchdown. All but the shortest field goals are out of the question. Southwest doesn’t have a specific kicking coach, so the Patriots usually rely on one of the top athletes to kick straight ahead.
Extra points and field goals, however, are just one aspect of the kicking game.
Kickoffs and punting play a huge factor in the field position game, which some coaches believe could be more important than place-kicking.
During Dublin’s run of eight straight shutouts in 2005, most of the Irish kickoffs went for touchbacks — in high school football, a player can’t advance a kickoff that reaches the end zone. The Irish’s defense was dominant that season, so the team had a formula: kick the ball into the end zone, force a three-and-out, get good field position following a punt and make quick work of a short field to take an early lead. The Irish repeated that all game and finished with 45 or more points in 10 of their 12 games.
“It made all of the difference in the world,” Holmes said. “We felt like every game, we went into it with an advantage.”
Kinsler agreed and said, “Our goal is to go out there and play as much of the game in the first half on their side of the field as possible. That starts with the kicker.”
The problem for many schools is a lack of knowledge about that facet of the game and an absence of coaches who focus specifically on kicking. Very few schools have a dedicated kicking coach.
“I’ll admit that I don’t know everything about it,” Kinsler said. “It’s hard to know if you haven’t done it. I was a holder as a quarterback in high school, so I picked up things then. I’ve tried to learn more, but I don’t know a whole lot about it. That’s why you send kids to camps during the summer.”
Almost every day before practice, a white pick-up truck pulls right in front of the Dublin practice field. Out of it ambles a man in his late 70s over to one the goal post where four players await his instruction.
Although he walks a bit slower now, George Hagler has repeated that walk every football season for the past 30-plus years as the Dublin kicking coach.
Hagler, a talkative and friendly man, is Middle Georgia’s version of Yoda. He is considered by many as the best kicking coach in the area, a man who has sent a handful of players to college on kicking scholarships through the years.
“There’s no way to describe how much he means to our program and how much of a difference he makes,” Holmes said.
Hagler’s influence is the reason Dublin’s kicking game has been among the state’s best during his time with the team. Hagler has coached four all-state kickers since 2000 alone, and his kickers have been named to all-state teams nine times.
“I just love working with the kids, and I love football,” Hagler said.
Hagler fell into coaching after his sons started to pick up the trade. They were some of the first high school kickers to adopt the soccer-style kicking that was permeating through the NFL with the influx of European kickers like Jan Stenerud and Garo Yepremian.
As his sons picked up the trade, Hagler took it upon himself to learn as much as he could about place-kicking and the soccer style.
He taught his son Scott Hagler, who went on to kick at South Carolina and later played with the Seattle Seahawks.
Holmes believed so much in Hagler’s method that he tried something unprecedented in the 2006 state championship game. Holmes decided to punt inside of Charlton County territory with hopes of getting the ball back for the uncontested free kick that could have won the Irish a state championship. They never did get the ball back, but it was Holmes’ faith in Hagler that he would even attempt the play.
“I really just started wanted to learn what I could about the trade, and picking up what I could,” Hagler said. “I wanted to help out Dublin the best I could.”
Dublin is one of the rarities. Most schools don’t have specific kicking coaches, and rarely if any coach just place-kicking like Hagler.
To perfect the craft, most players must go elsewhere and rely on self motivation.
Joseph McAllister makes the trip to Atlanta nearly every weekend.
When the GMC senior gets there, he’ll work with former NFL punter Mike McCabe on honing his technique. McAllister’s goal is earning a college scholarship — a rarity for a specialist — with his punting ability.
McAllister came into prominence last season when he joined the GMC football team after never playing football. A soccer player by trade, McAllister’s dad talked him into joining the football team.
McAllister came out of nowhere to average more than 45 yards per punt and finished with all-state honors.
“I really thought then that maybe I could play in college,” he said.
McAllister used his natural ability and combined it with technique after going to workout sessions with McCabe, who films the practices and sends them to colleges in hopes of drumming up some interest.
McAllister has received several looks from major colleges, although his numbers have dropped a tad with him nursing a leg injury and starting on offense and defense.
Most high school punters who play a specific position are relegated to a side field where they kick all practice long. They try to perfect their technique, but it’s often a lonely life.
Tattnall Square head coach Barney Hester said he would have to turn out the lights to get former punter Durant Brooks off the practice fields at night. Brooks won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top college punter when he was at Georgia Tech and was eventually drafted by the Washington Redskins.
“You have to be a self-starter to be a good kicker,” Hester said. “You’re off on your own sometimes. We’ve had soccer guys kick for us, and practice for them is spent just kicking. The good ones really use that time to get better.”
Many coaches who don’t have a coach like Hagler attribute good kicking to having a soccer program.
Hester said he didn’t have his first soccer-style kicker until the early 1990s, but that most since have abandoned the straight-ahead technique that prevailed for most of football history.
“I think you can directly see the influence of soccer players turned kickers in our game,” Kinsler said. “Our kickers are usually soccer players, and the good ones are good soccer players. Soccer has gotten bigger in (Georgia), and I think you can see that many teams have more reliable kickers. A good kicker still makes a big difference, though, and we’re lucky that we’ve had a lot of good ones.”