Eight years ago, when soccer-loving Sean Nuernberger was talked into kicking for a desperate high school football team as a freshman for the first time, there was nothing to it.
“I didn’t think about mechanics or anything,” he said. “I just kicked it as hard as I could and it came pretty easy.”
One probably should take his word for that, considering no one else in the Big Ten has ever made 148 extra-point kicks in a row. He smashed through the previous record of 141 a week ago with his eight PAT kicks during Ohio State’s 56-14 win at Nebraska.
The major-college record is 233 in a row, set by Alex Tricia of Texas Tech from 2004 to ’07. If Nuernberger and the Buckeyes stay on their current scoring path under coach Urban Meyer, he could have a shot at Tricia’s mark a year from now in his final season at OSU.
But back to that part about kicking being “easy.” That’s pretty much what Nuernberger thought it was, from high school in Kentucky — where he was considered one of the top prospects in the country — through his freshman year at OSU in 2014, when he was the kicker of record for the national championship team.
Then life happened.
He lost the job in 2015 to Jack Willoughby, a transfer from Duke. Though Nuernberger routinely had at least even numbers with Willoughby in practices, Willoughby kept getting the nod from the kickers’ quality control coach, Vince Okruch, now an assistant at Rutgers.
But when Willoughby faded near the end of the season, the coaches turned back to Nuernberger for field goals and extra points, while Willoughby continued to handle kickoffs.
“I finished 2015 really well, kicked three field goals in the Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame, so I felt really good,” Nuernberger said. “Then in the following spring I might have missed just five out of 60 kicks. I mean, I was killing the ball. It was the best I’d ever kicked. I just had this confidence, and it carried all the way through the summer.”
But a couple of days before 2016 preseason camp started, he was kicking when suddenly he heard a “pop.”
“I’m thinking ‘This is not good,’ ” and he was right. His hip flexor and groin muscle, in essence the fulcrum of his kicking leg, had conspired against him. When his hip became inflamed weeks later as he tried to work through it — a development that relegated him to crutches for a while — he had to step back.
Tyler Durbin, a transfer walk-on from James Madison who had never kicked for a football team before, was thrust into the job.
“At some point along that time I was ready to quit,” Nuernberger said. “I was thinking, ‘This sucks.’ ”
Though he became healthy enough during the season to where he could have kicked in a pinch, he had lost confidence that his leg would hold strong.
“Durbin was the better option to kick, no question,” Nuernberger said. “There were no hard feelings there at all. I was just mad at myself for getting hurt.”
The natural assumption at this point is, because he was not being asked to kick, that Nuernberger was able to let the problem heal on its own, and he stepped back into the role this past spring rejuvenated, headed toward Big Ten record glory.
Though recovered from the injury, the “thump” in his kicks was missing. His distance had shortened, and the height had dropped. For a kicker, it was like losing his mojo. He was reluctant to swing away.
“He really struggled in the spring,” Meyer said. “We altered his entire strength program.”
Quinn Barham, an assistant to OSU football performance coordinator Mickey Marotti, was given that job, tailoring a workout that trimmed up and strengthened Nuernberger from head to toe. As he dived into that, Nuernberger also traveled to Long Island, New York, for a tune-up visit with Luke Gaddis, who had been his instructor at the One on One Kicking camp, and who had first brought him to the attention of the OSU coaches during the recruiting process.
Gaddis spotted one problem right away. Nuernberger’s angle to the ball had become more acute, perhaps as a way to safeguard from having the same injury again.
Or, in kicker parlance, “His steps were a little narrow to where he wasn’t allowing himself to get his hips through the football,” Gaddis said. “He had really become all leg and it wasn’t allowing him to use all the power in his core, it wasn’t allowing that transfer of weight to get through the football.”
Gaddis had Nuernberger line up a foot wider to his left, then have his plant foot land a few inches wider from the ball spot.
“He also had a lack of explosion, he wasn’t allowing himself to finish up through the ball,” Gaddis said. “He was almost poking at it like a soccer ball.”
Well of course he was. That is what had made kicking easy for Nuernberger in the first place.
“ ‘Get off that plant foot, let all that weight go through the ball, let that lever just fly up,’ ” Gaddis said. “Those were the two things, widening him out and letting that leg fly.”
The results speak for themselves. Suddenly, like a golfer getting a tip that adds distance and height off the tee, Nuerberger was back on the beam. He regained 10 yards immediately, and it has carried through.
“He’s really strong right now. He’s very powerful,” Meyer said. “He has hit a couple of 60-yarders in practice, so he’s been much stronger.”
And he is a Big Ten record holder, along with being 7 of 9 on field goal tries so far this season. He has come a long way from the despair of last year.
“Part of me was like, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to kick again,’ ” Nuernberger said. “I think it’s good that I had to fight to come back.”