The Navy football team was nearly finished with practice on Wednesday morning when, as has been commonplace throughout training camp, players gathered in a semi-circle around the place kickers.
Then the Midshipmen watched as each of the candidates for the starting job took a crack at a field goal covering approximately 30 yards. Most of the attempts went wide left, and another failed try could have doubled as a knuckleball.
“We’ll have it narrowed down before we get on the airplane to go to Ireland” to play Notre Dame on Sept. 1, Navy special teams coordinator Steve Johns said, perhaps only partially in jest.
The most recent depth chart released on Monday listed six place kickers, including three freshmen and a sophomore. The two juniors in the mix are Brynmor Hughes and Stephen Picchini.
Hughes distinguished himself somewhat during Saturday’s scrimmage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where he booted a 47-yard field goal in a rotation comprising five players.
Freshman Nick Sloan also made a kick from 47 yards after classmates Austin Grebe (North Stafford) and David Reisner each missed. Picchini, who was first on the depth chart after spring practice, missed from that distance as well.
In all, Navy place kickers missed 11 of 15 tries from at least 31 yards during the scrimmage, leaving Coach Ken Niumatalolo with few options other than to continue the auditions.
The next set of tryouts at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium comes Friday afternoon when the Midshipmen conduct their second and final scrimmage.
“We’ll go through this scrimmage, our last big evaluation,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got two weeks to try to hone in on a lot of things.”
Complicating matters for Sloan, Grebe and Reisner has been plebe summer, the training program required of all freshmen comprising rigorous physical and mental demands.
The value of place kicking for the Midshipmen came into stark focus last season. Five of Navy’s seven losses were by a combined 11 points, including consecutive weeks on failed field goal attempts.
Against Rutgers on Oct. 15, senior Jon Teague had his 34-yard attempt blocked with 4 minutes 43 seconds to play in a 21-20 loss. The following week, Teague hit the right upright on a 42-yarder with eight seconds left in a 38-35 loss to East Carolina.
More heartbreaking was a botched extra point that led to a 35-34 overtime loss to Air Force on Oct. 1. The Midshipmen had rallied from a 21-3 halftime deficit to force overtime, then scored the first touchdown in extra time.
But quarterback Kriss Proctor was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after reaching the end zone, pushing the extra point back to the 18-yard line. Alex Means blocked Teague’s kick, and Air Force scored the tying touchdown and winning extra point on the ensuing series.
“Guys are starting to distinguish themselves a little bit,” Johns said. “But there’s still three or four guys competing really for two spots so it’s pretty balanced. Every kick from now on counts.”