Kicker Sam Ficken was close to perfect in Penn State's 23-17 season-opening win over Syracuse Saturday. He was 3-for-3 on field goals (including a career-long 46-yarder), 2-for-2 on extra points and registered touchbacks on four of his six kickoffs.
None of that happened by accident.
Ficken struggled mightily early in the 2012 season before turning things around and finishing the year with 10 straight makes -- including the overtime game-winner in the finale against Wisconsin. But he knew he could be even better, so he focused on improving his form and strength in the off-season.
And he had a little help in both areas.
In the form department, his advisor was former Nittany Lion and current Chicago Bears All-Pro kicker Robbie Gould. Gould broke down Ficken's tape and suggested streamlining his approach from two and a half steps to two steps, a transition Gould himself made when he entered the NFL in 2005.
Ficken said eliminating half a step has been big.
It's the same steps every time, he explained. With two and a half steps, you take a jab, and your jab may be a foot long or a foot and a half long. It takes out that room for error, so you don't have to adjust your steps at all. You take two steps back, two steps to the left, and it's the same (contact) point every time.
Now a junior, Ficken said he first met Gould in the spring of 2012. The NFL veteran gave him his number and told him to call any time to talk kicking. But after the Virginia game last year, when Ficken missed four of five field goal attempts and an extra point in a 17-16 loss, Gould actually reached out to him.
He texted me and says, 'Hey, give me some film,' Ficken recalled.
Ficken has improved steadily ever since.
It's always good to learn from an All-Pro, I guess, he said.
It's also been good to work out under second-year strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald. That's how Ficken has increased his power. Like many Lions, Ficken said the change from more machine-oriented workouts under the former staff to Olympic-style lifting under Fitzgerald has been beneficial.
Definitely since Coach Fitzgerald's gotten here, I've gotten a lot stronger, Ficken said.
So what does a kicker do in the weight room?
The same workout pretty much our whole team is doing, Ficken said. I do squats, bench, power cleans.
I'm doing everything the offensive linemen are doing to get stronger, (even) sled-pushes. That's big for me.
In off-season testing, the 6-foot-2, 184-pounder improved his broad jump to 9-7 and his vertical to 29.5 inches. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.79 seconds (which was faster than any of the team's quarterbacks) and turned in a 4.26-second pro shuttle.
He's pushed me hard and that's helped me, Ficken said of Fitzgerald.
Ficken was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week Monday, just six days short of the one-year anniversary of his disastrous game at Virginia. He was pilloried on social media that night.
Head coach Bill O'Brien has not missed a chance to blast the people who ripped Ficken on Twitter. Yet the coach also said, At the end of the day, it was maybe one of the best things that happened to him. He went through that, took the criticism to heart.
I think he came through that with flying colors.
That was a long time ago, he said. I would say last year, that was definitely a little bit of motivation. But this year, I'm just trying to do well for my teammates and win football games.
So far, he's doing just that, thanks to advice, direction and support from Gould, Fitzgerald, O'Brien and others.
There's definitely a good foundation of help out there for me and I really appreciate all of them helping me improve, Ficken said.