Aug. 24, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Doc Holliday will unveil his season-opening two-deep on Tuesday, but the Marshall football coach said there's one position where a decision may not be made until Saturday at Miami of Ohio's Yager Stadium.
That would be at place-kicker, where it's still redshirt senior Justin Haig OR redshirt freshman Nick Smith. Both have put their best feet forward - so to speak - in August camp to win the job.
"Really, it may come down to a game-day decision," Holliday said Saturday when asked who had won - or even was winning - the place-kicker job. "If I knew, I'd tell you, but to be honest, I don't know yet."
Haig, of Delray Beach, Fla., is the incumbent, having been the Herd's principal placement specialist for the past two seasons. He's hit two last-ticks, game-winning field goals in those years - a 45-yarder against Houston in 2012 and a game-ending 41-yarder last season at Florida Atlantic. Including extra-point kicks, the 5-foot-8 Haig has converted 163-of-175 kicks in a Herd uniform.
The 5-10 Smith, of Plain City, Ohio, is a walk-on who waited his last season, then emerged in spring practice this April as an honest-to-goodness challenger for the role.
An example of how it's gone in camp came in the Aug. 16 scrimmage, when Haig hit a 51-yarder, a distance from which Smith missed. Then the rookie hit a 45-yarder, and the senior missed from there.
"Both have improved and it's a good competition," said Holliday, who earlier in camp called the pair "tremendous" when they had been dueling with success from 45- to 50-yard range. "Kickers are no different than anyone else. When you're competing for your job, you find out what they're all about."
Haig and Smith also don't talk much about the competition or each other. Their focus has been on those new fluorescent green goalposts in Edwards Stadium and getting an accurate drive from the hands of new holder Tyler Williams.
Another place the two seem neck-and-neck is in the confidence department. Kickers have to be that way to be successful.
"I don't lack confidence," Haig said Saturday when asked about the competition and winning the job. "But I don't think about it, to be honest with you. When you're out there on the field, you're focusing on kicking the ball through the uprights.
"You don't think about things on the side, or anything like that. When I step on the field, I'm there to put the ball through the uprights to help the team. I don't really think about other things then ... I'm just trying to make sure I'm making my field goals, and that's it."
Smith was a bit more descriptive when asked about the right-leg back-and-forth with an experienced competitor.
"We'll see," the Ohioan said when asked whether he thought he had won the job. "They said it would be a game-week decision. We'll see how it goes. Justin's a great kicker and he's got the experience, but I feel I brought my `A' game and done the best I could, and I want to keep doing that."
Haig is 25-of-34 on field goals for the Herd and in 2012 battled through back problems to find success (13-of-16). Last season, he was 11-of-16, but three of those were blocked. Now, he says he feels better physically than he has in the past at MU and gives plenty of credit to Herd strength and conditioning director Scott Sinclair.
"I wouldn't say I've added distance," Haig said. "I remember two years go (2012) I hit a game-winner against Houston and I could only bend down to touch my knees, and that was 45 yards. I wouldn't say I've added distance. I'd say it was more about being smart in the weight room.
"Coach Sinclair has done great job with us. He knows it's not important for kickers to sit there and power clean heavy weight like the linemen do. He does things that benefit us as kickers more. He's done a great job with us.
"I seem quicker. I wouldn't say I've improved or anything, but I feel healthier, like right now, doing my running. Running is a great thing for us because it works on the legs, but it's not like weights and muscle mass."
Haig was running football-field lengths after the Herd's last camp scrimmage. The Herd is off Sunday and Monday, then returns for game preparation practice Tuesday.
"I've always been in good running shape, but especially running after you kick, it kind of helps," Haig said. "I know baseball pitchers, for example, they pitch and they run (foul) poles. They relax their elbow. So I try to apply that concept to the legs.
"So, I kicked (in Saturday's scrimmage) and we have two days off, so I'm going to run a little bit. My legs are a little tight, so this is for stretch out, get the blood flowing, take an ice bath. It's just taking better care of my body."
Haig was up to 195 pounds in the spring of 2012, but he said the running, stretching and eating a better diet have been a benefit that he can feel at 176 pounds.
Smith made 51- and 52-yard field goals at Alder High School, and in his junior season, he scored 100 kick points for the team. He also knows that no matter what his competition with a senior yields, Smith has prospered from it and he'll have a leg up on the job in the future.
"Pretty much the biggest thing for me was settling in," Smith said when asked about how he's prospered since redshirting last season. "College is a lot different than high school was, and I think the biggest thing with me - the thing I've improved on in the last year -- is my consistency, working on being more accurate, so they can put me out there at any time and trust me to put it in."
Asked at what distance he feels he's consistent, Smith said that's not his approach.
"We're taught from 35 yards in, you've got to make all of them," Smith said. "That's how we're coached. That one's got to be a gimme. Beyond that, I'd like to go out there and say I could make every single kick, and that's the mindset you have to have.
"When something little goes wrong and you hit the ball wrong, that's up to fate, but when I go out and kick, I'm thinking I'll make every single one. The biggest thing I've been working on is becoming perfect. It's all about getting three points."