In the scarlet corner: Kyle Clinton! In the gray corner: Sean Nuernberger! The stakes: actually, not a whole lot.
As conventional wisdom goes, there's no more pressure-packed role on a football team than as a placekicker. Most of the time, kickers hit a similar percentage of field goals, and the difference between an good kicker and a bad kicker over the course of a season may be four or five field goals. But oh, what a difference those field goals may hold.
For that reason, people around Columbus are getting a little testy about the kicking situation. Drew Basil had a solid senior campaign, converting 10 of 11 field goals and 77 of 79 PATs. The two athletes competing for his spot, senior Kyle Clinton and freshman Sean Nuernberger, have next to no experience at the college level. In January, our own Michael Citro emphasized that no matter how they perform in practice, they'll have a hard time replacing Basil because the pressure they'll face in a game is a whole other beast.
Unlike Citro, I have confidence both rational and irrational that Clinton and Nuernberger's inexperience won't hurt the kicking game at large. As frightening as a hypothetical of a greenhorn kicker needing to make a 50-yard field goal in front of 105,000 screaming fans sounds, it's not going to happen. It's been decades since Ohio State lost a game on a missed field goal, and the Buckeyes have only hit game-winning field goals twice since 2000.
As for the irrational confidence, it has everything to do with OSU's history of competent-to-great kickers. Based on that recent history alone, I expect Clinton to shine. Why should this year be any different?
Over the years, Ohio State has been blessed with quality kickers. As far back as 1974, a Buckeye kicker has had a heroic performance for his team: against Michigan that year, Tom Klaban made four field goals to win the game 12-10. As apocrypha has it, Woody Hayes announced on the following day's Woody Hayes Show that he had awarded Klaban a scholarship for his efforts.
The last 15 years of placekicker excellence has spoiled us; from Dan Stultz to Mike Nugent, Josh Huston to Ryan Pretorius, and Devin Barclay to Drew Basil, having a good kicker is something fans take for granted in Columbus. Somehow, it just feels like that past success would have rubbed off on Kyle Clinton.
With Sean Nuernberger, there's even more reason to feel good about the kicking game. As a true freshman he has a strong leg, he makes good contact on kicks, and his mechanics are all there. Even the concerns about him in his Better Know a Buckeye entry aren't that bad:
Nuernberger is already on campus, which allows for some preliminary evaluations. In just a few months on campus, he already seems a bit shaky on attempts beyond 40 yards. If he is going to start as a true freshman, we need him to move beyond freshman jitters at a higher level of football.
Fortunately for him, Tom Herman's aggressive playcalling circumvents situations where Nuernberger would have to hit 40+ yard field goals. If Ohio State gets into a 4th and 4 from the 30-yard line, the coaches won't even blink before dialing up a fourth down play for the offense.
Not all teams have that luxury. In 2010, Michigan was hampered by flat-out awful kicking. Our frenemies at MGoBlog charted their kickers' failure and came to the conclusion that not only was Michigan losing points on the missed kicks, their ineptitude forced the coaches to be more aggressive on fourth down than the standard percentages would dictate.
No, the real reason I'm confident about the kicking game is Ohio State's well-oiled, ass-kicking machine of an offense. What the above-mentioned MGoCharts show is that kicking competence and offensive competence goes both ways; poor kicking can influence offensive decision making, but good offense can render poor field goal kicking moot.
Basil attempted 11 field goals last year. Only one of them (against Iowa, up 31-24 with 5:50 remaining) qualifies as a pressure situation. It won't matter if Clinton and Nuernberger are shaky; even if they miss every field goal that Basil took last year, they wouldn't cost OSU a game.
Gone are the days of Mike Nugent being the team offensive MVP, blasting 55-yard field goals to beat Marshall and dragging his team to a road win against N.C. State. In seven games last year,Basil didn't even enter as a placekicker. With a quick pace, Ohio State will play lower variance games, meaning that individual field goals won't mean all that much anyway.
Sure, the offense will miss Carlos Hyde's ability to keep plays moving. With Braxton Miller's enormous skills and a wide receiver corps that finally ought to escape average play, there shouldn't be much of a dropoff in red zone touchdown percentage. We're not really worried about the kickers hitting 35-yarders, are we?
Whoever wins placekicking duties between Kyle Clinton and Sean Nuernberger, he is virtually guaranteed to have little impact on the offense's overall strength. If Nuernberger wins the job and succeeds, we won't have to worry about the kicking game until 2018.
So if you see he or Clinton drinking virgin mojitos on the sidelines this fall, don't criticize them; they're on a team that can afford to have no placekickers at all. That's living the dream.