Conventional wisdom has it as the easiest gig in football. The position has staying power, with many of the NFL’s greatest playing for upward of 20 NFL seasons, all without sustaining the bone-crushing contact regular NFL players endure. While the rest of the team is practicing by colliding into one another at the speed of a moving vehicle, kickers can be spotted in the corner of the field attempting trick shots or playing unique kicking games with the punter. And the benefits can be substantial. How many people realize Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri has just as many Super Bowl rings as Tom Brady, and that Vinatieri earned his fourth ring eight years before Brady finally drew even? Or that Vinatieri has a net worth of $13 million and recently signed a two-year extension with the Colts worth $6 million?
Kickers are easy to take for granted, but everyone becomes aware of their presence when the position isn’t working as it should. Just ask New England Patriots fans about their quest for a fifth Lombardi Trophy when kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his first extra point attempt in nine years during the AFC Championship game against the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Denver Broncos.
Kickers, regardless of how fans feel, matter, and Notre Dame has landed an exceptional one in Justin Yoon.
The talented kicker from Nashville, Tenn., garnered significant attention in high school, or as much attention as a kicker can receive, by being tabbed as the No. 1 player in the nation at his position. Yoon followed that hype by breaking several records at the Under Armour All-American game, including the most field goal attempts made (3) and the longest field goal in the game’s history at 47 yards. But the hype reached its zenith when head coach Brian Kelly laid out his expectations for Yoon after National Signing Day.
“We think [Justin] is the best kicker in the country,” Kelly informed the media. “I think you’ll see him as being one of the real stars in this class in terms of impacting right away.”
Naming a player the best in his class is one thing, but Kelly doubled-down and named Yoon as the best in the nation before even arriving to campus. Normally such talk could easily be brushed aside as typical coaching hyperbole, but UHND agreed with Kelly’s assessment and projected Yoon to be an impact freshman, and even speculated that Yoon could become the greatest to ever wear a Notre Dame uniform at his position.
How would Yoon handle such extreme expectations? Perhaps the video that surfaced last summer of him kicking 40-yard field goals with his non-dominant left foot just for fun should have been an indication of how tough Yoon’s mental make-up truly is.
And Justin Yoon would need that toughness as his freshman season began with a rough start. The young kicker only made four of his six field goal attempts in the first four games of the season, including two missed extra point attempts. The poor production paired with the hype surrounding his arrival caused Notre Dame fans to get antsy. But that all changed with Clemson.
Notre Dame headed into Death Valley to play the Clemson Tigers, a team that would eventually play for the national title, in prime time while South Carolina was being battered by a hurricane. The Irish were quickly down 14-0 and desperately needed points to prevent the game from spiraling out of control when Brian Kelly trotted out the shaky Yoon to attempt a 46-yard field goal in the driving rain and howling wind. The kick exploded off his foot and stayed true, and a star was born.
Yoon’s field goal against the Clemson Tigers was an immediate confidence boost and he finished the season a perfect 10-of-10 on his remaining field goal attempts, a performance that garnered him Freshman All-American honors from The Sporting News.
“If there’s an issue with him pushing a ball or hooking something, he’s a guy that can self-correct on his own, immediately assess it and not let it affect him,” Kelly said about Yoon’s mental toughness.
It’s something that can’t be taught, although Yoon has attempted to explain his ability to block out unnecessary noise to handle the task at hand.
“For me, it’s not about what I’m missing, it’s about what I do for the next one,” he told the media. “Every ball I kick is a different ball and not every one’s the same. If every one’s the same I’d make them all, right? It’s not that way. Every ball’s a different ball and I gotta focus on that certain ball. If I miss it, hey, that’s part of the game, go for the next one.”
Justin Yoon lived up to his billing and became an instant impact player as a freshman. Irish fans should be looking forward to several more years of not having to hold their breath whenever Kelly decides to send the field goal unit onto the field.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for The Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.