Ball Versus Foot

By Johnny Ginter on June 12, 2013 at 2:02 pm
kick it to win itBall, meet foot. Ball, DIE

By most measures, kicking a ball should be one of the easier things to do, athletics-wise. You look at a ball, run at it, exert some kind of force with your foot, make some kind of noise like "eennnhh!" and then make contact with the ball with your foot after which said ball goes off where ever (probably in the woods or a neighbor's yard, you big idiot).

It's simplicity is what has given people the excuse to call themselves athletes or say that they play sports even though their main form of participation is an over-30 kickball league sponsored by PBR and a local bike shop. It also has given football fans a convenient group of players to bag on for making the act of calcitration their main contribution to their team rather than giving opponents concussions or covertly punching them in the balls at the line of scrimmage.

But guess what hipster douchebags and Kerry Coombs (water, stretching, kicker, etc.), kicking the crap out of stuff, particularly oblong stuff but also round things as well, is actually stupid hard. And the people who can do it consistently well are to be valued like a shiny emerald.

Which is why I was pretty excited about the signing of Australian punter Cameron Johnston for this season and kicker Sean Nuernberger for the class of 2014.

They're foreign, Johnston's played some weird bastardization of soccer that predates our weird bastardization of soccer, and Nuernberger's dad was a basketball player, which apparently doesn't even allow kicking at all. None of that matters, though, because both young men are here at Ohio State to put foot on ball and kick it as hard as they can.

The mechanics

Wind up, extend ball in front of body, kick. Even though this kid seems to be struggling with it, for most people it's really not that big of a deal, but on the other hand, most people really suck at it.

Let's talk about Australian Rules Football for a second. For the uninitiated, Aussie football, though a sport with running and tackling the person with the ball, is still a highly kicking based sport. The ball must be kicked between two posts to score a six point goal, and that means that accurate kickers are highly prized and an integral part of the game. The ball used is somewhat larger and more rounded than an American football (like a rugby ball), but overall it's roughly the same.

So: it's time to kick the ball. You start with the wind up, which means making sure that you're taking the appropriate amount of steps to ensure that your plant foot is far enough ahead of your body so that your kicking foot winds up enough to give the ball enough force. In Aussie football, you generally have time to line up your steps so that this can happen, whereas in American football, only placekickers really have that luxury to any real extent.

PRETORIUS B.I.GSup foreign bro?

The extension of the ball in front of the body is interesting, as is the kick itself. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal had an article about the adoption of the Aussie style drop punt making its way into the NFL, and it does a pretty good job at summarizing the issue:

On a recent day at the Jets' training facility in Hempstead, N.Y., Ben Graham launched a couple of drop punts high into the air. Each time, he dropped the ball onto his foot at a nearly 45-degree angle and hit it almost on the nose with his toes. (A traditional spiral kicker hits the "meat" of the ball with the top of his foot.)

If executed correctly, drop punts will bounce forward or backward after hitting the ground -- unlike a spiral, whose trajectory on the ground is impossible to predict.

For directional punting this is obviously a big deal, and that makes the proper foot, leg, and body placement of the kicker even more paramount.

If you take too many steps, you've lost momentum and the kick will be short. If your plant foot is too far forward, you'll compensate by not winding up your kicking foot enough and the kick will be short. If your plant foot is too far back, you won't have enough room to wind up and your body will be leaning too far forward and hey guess what, your kick will be short. If you drop the ball on the wrong part of the foot, it can go anywhere, and will probably be too short.

The point is, however, if you're good at it, Aussie style drop punting can be a thing of beauty. This instructional video from Dolph Lundgren in a referee's uniform does a great job of showing just how amazing a properly executed punt can be, and for American audiences it's pretty easy to extrapolate how someone skilled at kicking in the Australian game might translate over to ours.

If you think you're making a mountain out of a molehill, I'm not, and this graduate thesis about Aussie football kicking doesn't think so either. Try this: get a football, and punt the hell out of it. Feel pretty good about your latent athletic ability.

Then go to a football field and try it again. Measure how far you're kicking it. Then have a buddy time its flight in the air. Then remind yourself that Urban Meyer wants, at minimum, 4.5 seconds of hang time to go along with what is hopefully a 45 yard kick. Then cry as your dreams crash down around you.

The people

So kicking is pretty hard. So's moving to a new country.

Ask Ryan Pretorius, who in his mid 20's came to Ohio State by way of Durban, South Africa in 2004 to kick for the team from 2006 through 2008. Pretorius was family friends with fellow South African and legendary NFL kicker Gary Anderson, who convinced him to give college football a try after stints as a rugby player in several European countries. Pretorius dealt with culture shock ("I didn't even know how to put my pads on. I didn't have a clue.") and a divorce, but still managed to convert a respectable 78% of his field goals at OSU, including going 3-5 from 50 yards or more and do well overall.

Or, more recently, ask Brad Wing, the former punter for LSU who was an undrafted free agent selected by the Philidelphia Eagles to compete with for their starting job. Wing, an Australian, was one of the best punters in the country last year as he averaged nearly 45 yards per kick. He's also the first college player to get nailed under the new taunting rules, was suspended for LSU's 2012 bowl game because of a violation of team rules, and was arrested in connection with a bar fight.

Point is, Cameron Johnston, whether he's successful at brining his mastery of the mechanics of kicking to America or not, might have some growing pains to go through as he adjusts to a new sport and a new world. Luckily there are no shortage of great role models, like Pretorius and Anderson, and maybe in the future a kid in another country will read the name Cameron Johnston or Sean Neurnberger and think "hell, I can do that too."

Speaking of which...

Oh, well cool!

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