MADISON – Last month at Big Ten media days in Chicago, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema rattled off a number of position battles that would be up for grabs entering fall camp. He talked about the battle at right tackle, the depth needed at linebacker and the ‘good faith’ open quarterback competition.
Bielema never mentioned the field goal and kickoff spots, but it’s apparent that redshirt freshman Kyle French and redshirt sophomore Alec Lerner paid no mind.
With Philip Welch nursing a nagging strained right quadriceps since the middle of summer, French and Lerner -- a pair of walk-ons -- have done everything possible to see the field this season for the Badgers.
And they appear to have been given the opportunity.
When Wisconsin released its depth chart in preparation for the season opener September 1 against UNLV, French was listed as the co-kicker with Welch and Lerner was listed as the player in charge of kickoffs.
“Phil is a great kicker and Alec and I know that, but we came here to kick and we wanted to come into camp and compete,” French said. “Phil is a good friend of ours, but Coach Bielema (said) to come out with a competitive attitude every day.”
Although he hasn’t kicked in an actual game for the Badgers yet, French knows a little bit about pressure situations in Camp Randall. He pushed a 40-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter of the 2009 WIAA Division 1 state championship game in a 7-0 loss to Milwaukee Marquette, but scored the only actual points in the spring game on a 44-yard attempt, and made rapid fire kicks of 23 and 33 yards.
Knowing he was going to redshirt last season, French, who will be on scholarship his final three years, admits that he was just happy to be at Wisconsin. The approach is different this year. Knowing he was there to compete and have the opportunity to impress the coaches with his leg strength, French has worked on his core kicking muscles with assistant strength coach Brian Bott and added roughly 25 pounds to his frame.
As a result, French is unofficially 21-for-27 on his field goal attempts with the first-team unit in practice, results that usually come with Bielema yelling in his ear, making noise or threatening the entire unit with extra conditioning if French slips up.
“I actually love it that he does (that), because it gets you set for game-day situations with 80,000 fans watching you,” French said. “Every kick has pressure, but having the extra mouth talking to you and trying to get into your head really helps focusing on letting it go through one ear and out the other.”
The success of French has put even more pressure on Welch, who was openly challenged by Bielema in the spring to be able to better handle the pressure and be more consistent with his kicks. Welch has made at least 17 field goals in each of his first three seasons, is second in school history in field goal percentage (77.1 percent) and is third in field goals made (54) and career points (315).
The problem, in addition to his health, is that Welch has become a bit erratic. He missed a critical 39-yard field goal that would have made a difference in the Rose Bowl, and missed all three of his field-goal attempts in the spring game.
“(Last season was a success), except for the missed 39-yarder in the Rose Bowl, which was just a little unlucky,” Welch said. “Other than that, I was 100 percent within 40 yards, which is pretty good. I would have liked to make some of the longer field goals, but it was pretty good.”
One area that Welch has struggled in has been kickoffs, a job that no longer is his to worry about due to the emergence of Lerner, a walk-on from Omaha, Nebraska. Routinely having kickoffs with four-seconds-or-better hang time in practice, Bielema put Lerner through his first pressure test last Friday.
Bielema had already planned to shorten practice and take the players to a movie (The Hangover Part II), but he had the team line up behind the kickoff team and said if Lerner put the next kick in the end zone, practice would be over. Lerner delivered, resulting in some players lifting the 175-pound kicker on their shoulders and others chanting ‘Rudy’ after the famous Notre Dame walk-on lineman and eventual movie inspiration.
“I just wanted to put pressure on him, because he hasn’t been able to be in that environment yet,” Bielema said. “He hit it out of the back (of the end zone), so it’s a good sign.”
It’s a good sign of a deep team that even the kicking positions have three capable kickers that can compete. French said the coaching staff hasn’t told him who will be taking the field goals in the opener. The way he sees it, any of the kickers can kick, and that makes Wisconsin stronger.
“We’ll see how Phil’s injury goes and if he’s ready to go for the game,” French said. “I am hoping to be involved. I am just trying to stay humble and if I don’t get on the field, I just got to keep pushing every day to hopefully get out there one day.”
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