A kicker can easily recognize the symptoms of a career about to go sour. The first thing to go is the mind.
University of Maryland kickers have scrambled the mind of head coach Jerry Claiborne with their on-again, off-again accuracy.
Mike Sochko, who warms up before a game by dancing to the theme of the television show "Soul Train," was so loose in 1975 he gained all-conference honors for his all-purpose kicking.
But last season he lost his place-kicking rights and his punting fell off slightly. He explains, "I got cocky. The publicity went to my head."
Eddit Loncar was yanked from a sideline semisleep in the middle of the Kentucky game when it was decided that Sochko's placekicking had gone awry. As a freshman the previous year, Loncar had been suspended for the final fourth of the season for missing curfew before the Penn State game. Suddenly called in midgame in midseason, lack of experience turned his psyche to silly putty - a malady that spreads to the kicking leg.
"I had never played in front of so many people," Loncar said. "I was so confused. When I got into games, I don't know what happened. I just messed up. I was kind of scared to go in games. The crowd affected me - that's one of my biggest problems.
"It's all in your head. Any time you miss a kick, it's because you didn't do something right, you didn't concentrate."
The statistics would seem to indicate that it wasn't as bad as it seemed. Holder Mark Manges pointed out, "They didn't completely flop. They just weren't as consistent as had been hoped."
In 1975, Sochko led the team in scoring with 67 points and averaged 40.4 yards on punts. Last year, Sochko scored 36 points and averaged 39.1 punting. He missed four of 25 extra point kicks and four field goals of 35 yards or less.
After Loncar took over, he kicked 10 of 11 PAT and missed field goals of 21, 22, 43, 45 and 48 yards but hitting once from 31.
Manges said, "We have to have a good kicking game this season. Our schedule is tougher and we've lost some big powerful people who could win games just on strength. We'll need more finesse this year."
Although Claiborne is ordering improvement, both Sochko and Loncar insist that things are better. In scrimmages, Sochko has been doing most of the punting and Loncar most of the placekicking and it appears that is the way it will be for the season-opener at Clemson, Sept. 10.
Sochko is not overly worrisome about his preseason performance. "My preseason hasn't been good in three years," he explained. "I peak from week to week. I'm kicking with more confidence, although I can tell I'm not where I want to be. Loncar's in the groove right now. I'm not."
Sochko says the most important difference has been in his attitude.
"I thought I didn't have to better myself. I thought I could go through the motions. I've learned I can't do that," said Sochko. "Kicking is 90 per cent mental. I had bad practices. I would come out and not sustle some days. You have to concentrate on what you do."
Loncar said, "I'm more mentally into it this year. This is the first time since high school that I've been kicking good."
In scrimmages, Loncar has made field goals of 30, 35 and 45 yard.
Loncar kicks soccer style, a legacy from his childhood days in Yugoslavia. He has applied for United States citizenship and expects the process to be complete in a year. Loncar's family moved the U.S. when he was 13. He remembers the first day of eighth grade - he walked out.
"Keeping my mind on the game is hard. I brainstorm a lot."
By brainstorming, Sochko means that, without warning the announcers voice is inexplicably blocked out by a few imaginary bars of "I'm Your Boogie Man" or some other Sochko favorite.
"Sochko," said Loncar, "is nuts. I've never met anyone like Sock. He's just, like, crazy.
"He's a trip to room with. He watches "Soul Train" before games and gets up and dances around the room while I'm trying to relax. I get up and leave."
Sochko confirms all crazy actions attributed to him.
"I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood (in Pootstowm, Pa.) and I like soul music. It gets me ready," said Sochko. "And if I hear good music, I got to move. If I have room I got to shake it. It gets me calm. Ordinary people get ready for games by sitting around and thinking about it. Not me."
No one has ever accused any kicker of being an ordinary person.
"People just think I'm crazy" said Sochko. "Of course, that's true."