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Oct. 6, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – It’s the same on any college football team during practice.
While members of the offense and defense work, sweat and bang their bodies around, kickers are off to the side, doing whatever it is that kickers do. Verbal zings are inevitable.
At Florida State, Dustin Hopkins enjoys the repartee.
“I give them a hard time back,” Hopkins said. “I would be worried if they didn’t give you a hard time. It’s kind of like if the coach isn’t yelling at you, he doesn’t really care.”
Hopkins said he was welcomed and treated just like any other team member when he was a freshman and has always felt like part of a family. And he has learned one thing about all the kidding.
“I feel like everybody wants to be a kicker in practice,” he said, “but nobody wants to be a kicker in the game.”
And when it comes to kicking in the game, there’s no one his team would rather have than Hopkins. Among a group of outstanding kickers in the ACC, the Seminoles’ junior may be the best of them all.
Hopkins has connected on all seven field goal attempts this season, the longest from 53 yards. He went 22-for-28 as a sophomore, including a 55-yarder that beat Clemson as time expired. As a freshman, he was 19-of-27. That adds up to 48 of 62 – just over 77 percent – so far in his career.
All kidding aside, how does Hopkins spend the week preparing for a game like the Seminoles have Saturday at Wake Forest?
“We play a game on Saturday and Sunday is a treatment day,” he said, “Monday we do drills, usually for field goals. You try to save your leg a little bit because you’re still kind of sore from the game, so we usually do drills that don’t involve a ball.
“Tuesday and Wednesday are the heavy days for me. I’ll work kickoffs those days and field goals and I’ll hit a good number of balls both those days, working with the team and the offensive line.
“Thursday I’ll work on kicks that I usually don’t utilize, like on-side kicks, squibs, different things like that, along with maybe some field goal drills kind of like Monday drills.
“Friday, rest and don’t touch a ball. And Saturday, game. All that goes along with special teams meetings, looking at the (opponent’s) return team, things of that nature, And seeing film on (our) kicking team.”
Watching film, Hopkins said, kickers analyze and criticize themselves, making sure they’re doing the fundamental things that give them a chance to succeed.
Studying opponents, they watch how returns are set up and who the top return man is. One thing Hopkins doesn’t worry about is how an opponent lines up to block a field goal or extra point.
“I know our coaches look at that,” he said, “but for me, if the snapper (Dax Dellenbach) is on his game and the holder (Shawn Powell) is on his game and I get there in time and hopefully get a good ball off, it shouldn’t really matter.”
In other words, if everything is synchronized the way it should be, the kick won’t be blocked. And so far this season, every kick (the seven field goals plus 16 extra points) has been good.
Such accuracy doesn’t happen by accident. The snapper, holder and kicker spend a great deal of time perfecting their timing. Powell, who is also the Seminoles’ punter, has been Hopkins’ holder for three years. Dellenbach has been the snapper for two years and the three have built considerable trust in each other.
“That chemistry is huge,” Hopkins said. “We always get out there early just to get in our work before practice. Working on small things and talking through situations, you definitely develop a rapport with the guys, a close bond because of the time you spend. You can relate to each other about how different a position being a specialist is.”
Place-kicking is half of what Hopkins does. The other element is kicking off, which is important because it can deny the opponent good field position. In college football, the kickoff is from the 30-yard line, so someone who can consistently boom it in the end zone and prevent a runback is invaluable.
That has long been one of Hopkins’ strengths. Coming into this season, almost 48 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks. This year, half of his 28 kickoffs have been touchbacks, putting the ball on the 20-yard line. Of the 14 kickoffs the opponents have run back, they have fared slightly worse, with average starting position on the 19.
Consistently putting the kickoff deep is a matter of pride with Hopkins. Most kickers, he said, have practiced the technique so much that they approach the ball with an “I’m going to kill it” attitude.
“I would say making sure your path to the ball is where it needs to be (is the first thing),” he said. “And then having your steps right where you’re not stutter-stepping and you’re gradually picking up speed. Once you swing your foot through, instead of landing on your off leg you land on your kicking leg, just like a hurdler would.”
As important as that is for Florida State, it’s the field goals that people remember about kickers. The Seminoles have had some gems in recent years, like Scott Bentley, Sebastian Janikowski and Graham Gano. Hopkins ranks right there with them in terms of being an offensive weapon.
“He comfortably hits them 55 and 60 (yards) all the time,” said head coach Jimbo Fisher. “If he hits one good, it can go 70, somewhere in that range.”
Hopkins said the longest field goal he has hit in practice with a holder was a wind-aided 71 yards. In a game thinks he could make one 60 to 63 yards, maybe even as far as 66.
“Fifty-three is the zone where there should be no reason where I should miss a ball or distance should be an issue,” he said.
That means if the Seminoles reach the 36-yard line, Hopkins feels they’re in his comfort zone.
Few players on a team feel pressure like a kicker who comes on the field at the end of a game. A good kick will either win it or tie it. A miss will lose it or send it into overtime. Hopkins has been through both outcomes.
“The difference between a miss and a make,” he said, “is being in the now instead of focusing on the outcome, and knowing what you have to do to be successful as far as technique goes.
“After a miss, the disappointing thing would be letting your teammates down. The good thing about the make would be having the ability to be a game-changer and be there for your teammates when you’re called upon.
“It’s the nature of the beast – you’re either the hero or not the hero. Something kickers around the country pride themselves on is being clutch.”
It used to be that kickers weren’t considered real football players. But Fisher said Hopkins is “a really good athlete” who ranks in the top 10 to 15 percent on the team when everyone is tested for running, jumping and other abilities.
“You have to be coordinated to kick because your margin for error is so small,” Hopkins said. “You miss a ball by an inch and it changes by yards in the result. A lot of us played a lot of sports growing up, just like other guys on the team, and we’re deceivingly athletic, I guess. Hopefully I can be included in that group, but there are a lot of kickers that are a lot more athletic than me.”
At Clear Lake High School in Houston, Hopkins was considered the No. 1 kicker in the country but was also a starter in the secondary, although he laughs at the notion that he could fit in a nickel or dime defense with FSU.
“I would like that, maybe, but I can’t compete,” he said. “We have world-class athletes. I’m just glad to be a part of the team, to be honest.”
And the Seminoles are glad to have Hopkins do what he does.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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