Saturday, November 18, 2000

UC kicker thrives on pressure

        The secret to successful place-kicking is to think small or not at all. The less brain power involved, the better.

        “Most kickers I know who are good don't think about it,” Jonathon Ruffin said Friday afternoon. “They just do it. That was one of my problems last year — I thought about it too much.”

        The University of Cincinnati's sophomore kicker has traded anxiety for serenity and turned an uncertain task into an automatic reflex this season. So shaky a year ago that he caused Bearcats coach Rick Minter to recruit a junior-college kicker as competition, Ruffin is now as relaxed and reliable as a vacationer in a Volvo.

        He leads the nation with 24 field goals and is one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, bestowed annually on the finest foot in Division I football. Entering his final game before the polls close — this afternoon's scrum against Southern Mississippi — Ruffin has at least a leg up on the competition and a fine chance to be feted Dec.5, when the Groza winner is announced.

        This is heady stuff, when you think about it. It is heady stuff even if you refuse to think about it.

        “As far as technique and the way I kick, that hasn't changed,” Ruffin said. “The difference, probably, is confidence.”

A major rebound
        If cornerbacks operate on an “island,” isolated from the rest of the action, deprived of suitable hiding places, a kicker's existence is 10 times more tenuous. When he fails under pressure, it may be months before a similar opportunity arises.

        Ruffin converted four of his first five field goal attempts as a UC freshman, but then his aim went the way of the bad guy in a B western. Though his target was stationary, and 18 feet, six inches wide, Ruffin might as well have been kicking at a keyhole. He botched six of his last seven field-goal attempts before Minter gave the job to Joe Judge, and his misses figured prominently in a string of narrow defeats.

        Some kickers go through a stretch like this, and they are never the same thereafter. Either they doubt themselves, or they start to sense their coach's distrust, or both. Those kickers who endure tend to have good feet and great fortitude.

        “It's do or die,” Ruffin said. “You're on the field, you're in the spotlight, and that's it.”

Bearcats' sure thing
        This was not the role Ruffin imagined when he first played football in Metairie, La. Growing up, he was customarily cast as a defensive end. When he stopped growing, he became the kicker.

        Ruffin had hoped to play college football closer to home but signed with UC because it was the first school to offer him a full ride. College football coaches will stockpile talent at other positions, but they tend to be stingy about kicking scholarships. They seek dependability, not depth.

        Ruffin has been the next closest thing to a sure thing this season. He has made 24 field goals in 27 attempts. No other Division I kicker has made more than 20 field goals this season. Tennessee's Alex Walls and Kansas State's Jaime Rheem — the other Groza Award finalists — are 17-of-19 and 14-of-16, respectively.

        “At the beginning of the year, I was trying to have a good, solid year,” Ruffin said. “But as the season went along, I started thinking about the award. I don't know much about Lou Groza, but I know this is the best thing I can do as a kicker.”



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