Brett Kern couldn't afford nerves. A freshman last season, he was the starting punter from Day One for the University of Toledo.
And that wasn't easy. The Rockets didn't fare well in opening games against Minnesota and Kansas, and Kern was called on 17 times in those two games on hostile turf. He averaged 41.2 yards with long kicks of 53 yards against the Gophers and 54 against Kansas.
Pressure? What pressure?
Maybe Kern dealt with it so well because of the help he got preparing from UT place-kicker Jason Robbins. Robbins, you see, knew pressure.
"It's tough going out there for the first time," Robbins, now a senior, recalled. "I remember the pressure I put on myself following a legend like Todd France. That was brutal."
France left UT after the 2001 season with a school-record 55-yard field goal, the third-highest career field goal percentage in UT history, and more extra points than any kicker to have come before.
Robbins took over in 2002 and in his first eight games missed seven extra points and made just four of seven field goal attempts.
Then everything changed. In the next six games, he made 32 of 33 PAT kicks and all nine of his field goal tries.
The senior from Southview High has since passed France in extra points, both attempted and made, and owns a .758 field goal percentage to France's .702 mark, albeit with considerably fewer attempts, thanks to a high-octane offense that majors in scoring touchdowns.
"There was a point where I realized I didn't have to be the next Todd France, and that's when I started to figure things out," Robbins said. "I just had to be myself and play my game. Now, there's no pressure. Now, every time I go out there it's pure excitement."
When the Rockets open the season Thursday night against Western Illinois at the Glass Bowl they'll have the luxury of two pressure-tested kickers.
"Having two veterans to rely on early in the season is a comforting feeling," said UT coach Tom Amstutz. "I have a lot of confidence in Kern and Robbins, who works as hard as anybody on our team. Just about any day I walked in my office this past summer I could look out the window and see Robbins out there on the field kicking."
The fans in the stands might find it hard to believe that kickers, who mostly toil off to the side by themselves, would be credited with that kind of work ethic.
"It might surprise all these guys, too," Robbins said, laughing and pointing at his UT teammates as they left the field after practice. "But [kickers are] expected to report to camp in mid-season form and the only way to do that is to spend two, three hours every day during the summer kicking by yourself."
Robbins, Kern and back-up kicker Michael Krispinsky live together and held one big kicking session per day in the Glass Bowl this past summer.
Kern said he was satisfied with his freshman season - he averaged 40.6 yards and had only 18 of 44 punts returned as UT won the Mid-American Conference title - but added, "You can always be better. I owe a lot to Jason because he helped me become mentally tougher. I'm more focused now and I expect every punt to be a great punt."
Amstutz, like any coach, has found something to be concerned about in his kicking game. After having the practically-perfect Michael Heuer as the long snapper for several years, true freshman Jeremy Mack will take over those duties.
Kern and Robbins said Amstutz can relax.
"I'll tell you, it was a privilege to play with Mike Heuer," Robbins said. "He was incredibly accurate. But nothing has changed. I remember when Jeremy was here on a recruiting visit last spring. He saw a ball on the ground, he bent over and snapped it and it was perfect. I said, 'Coach, we gotta get this guy.'●"
The Rockets got him and Robbins is confident the kicking game will be ready to perform on opening night.
"It's still nerve-racking when you go out there, but that comes from caring," said Robbins, who will be bidding for a third MAC West title in four years as UT's kicker. "We all care about doing the job because we know what the reward is."
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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