It’s hard to argue that anyone on Penn State’s football team faced more criticism last season than kicker Sam Ficken. Ficken assumed the job as the team’s starting kicker after reliable kicker/punter combo Anthony Fera transferred to Texas to be with his ailing mother.
Heading into last season, the then sophomore from Valparaiso, Indiana says he felt that he had “all the ability in the world,” which wasn’t entirely unjustified. As a high schooler, Ficken set his school’s record for the longest field goal when he knocked one in from 52-yards out. He even went 1-2 as a true freshman in 2011, drilling a 43 yard field goal against Eastern Michigan.
Of course, the season got off to a rocky start for Ficken. Everyone remembers his 1-5 performance in the 17-16 loss to Virginia, which also included a blocked PAT. Unfortunately for Ficken, he also missed two of his next three kicks to go along with that, leaving him at a lowly 2-8 on the season.
What people may not remember is that Ficken was one of the hottest kickers in the country in his last five games, making all ten kicks and every PAT that he attempted over that span of time. According to Ficken, “I couldn’t really ask for anything more than that. It was about as good as you can get.”
Part of what helped Ficken was advice from fellow kickers and coaches.
“I’ve talked with Robbie Gould quite a bit and gone over film” Ficken says, “He’s been a big help with the mentality that he told me about and the way that I need to practice. He’s definitely helped with my fundamentals. I switched my steps up this season, I’m doing two steps now instead of two and a half, which takes out a little room for error. So he’s definitely been a big help.”
“I talked to my coach from high school,” Ficken continued, “He was in camp with the Cowboys. I’ve talked with the Browns punter, and I’ve also heard from [Minnesota Vikings kicker] Blair Walsh. And just seeing them reach out to me — I reached out to Robbie Gould, he was definitely very helpful — but other kickers that weren’t associated with Penn State that are in the NFL, they reached out to me. So that was pretty cool to see.”
Ficken especially credits the help that he has received from Gould — both over the phone and in person — for making him a better kicker. Despite dominating kickoffs (he would regularly put kickoffs through the uprights), Gould had his own struggles at Penn State. He made only 63.9 percent of his field goal attempts in Happy Valley, including only 55.2 percent in his junior and senior seasons.
Today, Gould is a member of the Chicago Bears, a former Pro Bowler, and the sixth most accurate kicker in NFL history.
“He worked with my fundamentals and had me shorten out a little bit, and also to slow down,” Ficken said. “I was kind of rushing toward the ball and being a little erratic with my steps. His biggest advice was, ‘slow down, calm down, and just hit the ball that you know you can hit,’ and that really helped.”
To prepare for the 2013 season, Ficken has been getting stronger, both physically and mentally.
“I’ve definitely gotten stronger with [Craig Fitzgerald] pushing me,” Ficken said, “I’m definitely more tough mentally.”
Like a baseball player who bulks up before the season begins, Ficken has to make sure that his technique doesn’t suffer with his newfound strength.
“When you get stronger, your technique’s gonna change a little bit,” Ficken said, “You gotta kind of fine tune [your technique]with the strength you gained.”
The extra work that Ficken has put in to become Penn State’s next great kicker hasn’t gone unnoticed. At his press conference on media day, Bill O’Brien praised the extra work that he has seen out of Ficken.
“I remember I was running on the treadmill during the summer and I could see him out there on the practice field, kicking by himself with his helmet on,” O’Brien said. “He was trying to get some work on his own, and that says it all about Sam Ficken.”