October 5, 2006

Kicking Clutch for Football

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As a freshman pledging Delta Upsilon, junior Peter Zell’s nickname was Ray Finkel — a nod to the character in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective who was a placekicker for the Miami Dolphins. Two years later, after Zell kicked a 33-yard field goal to seal Cornell’s 23-21 upset of then-No. 23 Albany last Saturday night on Schoellkopf Field, his fraternity brothers created a Facebook group called “Peter Zell Is Going To The NFL.”

The upgrade from deranged NFL has-been best known for screaming “Laces out!” to a player deemed worthy of the professional ranks by his brothers illustrates Zell’s growth into an effective offensive weapon for the Red (1-2, 0-1 Ivy). This development came under the direction of second-year tight ends coach Zac Roper, who was a graduate assistant coach at Mississippi when head coach Jim Knowles ’87 was the linebackers coach there.

“All [Knowles] told me was that he wanted to hire me, and I jumped at the chance,” Roper said. “Obviously, I had the opportunity to work with him when he was with us at Ole Miss. Everyone that’s ever been around coach Knowles knows his personality is infectious.”

For Roper, football is the family business. His brother Kurt is the running backs coach at Tennessee, while his father, Bobby, was a star defensive end at Arkansas in the 1960s and went on to coach at Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Oregon, among others. The approach Zac takes to coaching kickers has evolved from observations of his father’s work late in his career and his brother’s coaching duties early on at Tennessee.

“He comes from a real football family,” Knowles said. “He’s just very smart, he’s a student of the game.”

That background first paid off at Ole Miss, where Roper coached Jonathan Nichols, the 2003 Lou Groza Award winner as the nation’s top kicker and a first-team All-American who set 15 school records under Roper’s tutelage. Punter Cory Ridgeway also found success following Roper’s direction, as he was named to the All-SEC second team after ranking 11th in the country with 44.2 yards per punt.

“Actually, I really didn’t hear about the things he had done at Ole Miss,” Zell recalled. “But when he came, immediately, I could tell he knew what he was talking about, and that’s one of the biggest things he’s done for me.”
[img_assist|nid=18792|title=Laces out|desc=Senior Patrick Blakemore (82) holds a kick for classmate Peter Zell (39) during the Red’s 23-21 Victory over Albany last Saturday. (Eric Safstrom / Sun Senior Photographer)|link=popup|align=left|width=78|height=100]
Roper gained the trust of the kicking corps — including A.J. Weitsman ’06, Zell, and junior Jay Harding — by instilling a practice regime that consisted of a detailed daily routine and an individualized approach to refining technique. He brought the same touch to his work with the punters, starting junior Michael Bolling and sophomore Nick Maxwell.

“To hear someone talk and actually know what they’re talking about in the kicking game just gives me that much more confidence,” Zell said. “I think that’s really rare at the college level. A lot of times a college program will expect a kicker to come in and know what he’s doing and kind of go off by himself.”

Zell found that Roper had a very different idea of how to coach kickers. Each day in practice, the two kickers go through a sequence of no-step and one-step warm-up kicks to work up to the full approach they use in games. Then, they kick across the field, aiming for a grid that is five yards wide. Eventually, Roper has them move over to the uprights, where they begin at the right hash on the 1-yard line and work away from the end zone from there.

“What it comes down to is hard work, and it all started a year ago when coach Knowles gave me an opportunity to coach these guys,” Roper said. “Everything they’ve done, they’ve earned. … These guys have done a really nice job of understanding what has to get done and we have a routine and we stick to it and do it over and over, and I think that’s helped these guys perform.”

That practice-makes-perfect mentality has paid off for the Red since Roper’s arrival, and especially for Zell in the past three weeks. First, Roper transformed Weitsman from a 2-for-6 kicker entering the 2005 season to a dependable weapon who set five school records.

“[Roper is] very consistent with them,” Knowles said. “He gives them practice plans, he coaches them every single time they kick the ball.”

Zell has emerged as a capable successor over the past three weeks, going 4-for-5 on field goals as the Red opened the season with two losses in which the team scored just 14 points. He ranks No. 2 among Division I-AA kickers in field goal attempts per game with 2.3, and is ranked 33rd in points per game with 7.7. His performance against Albany — three field goals, including a career-long kick from 45 yards out — earned him Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week honors and catapulted him to Facebook fame.

Bolling has also improved under Roper’s tutelage, deftly stepping in to fill the shoes of four-year starter Mike Baumgartel ’05. In 2005, Bolling averaged 36.6 yards per punt, and pinned 20-of-45 punts inside the 20-yard line, and is up to 38.4 yards per punt this season. In 52 career punts, he has not given up one touchback.

Even with this success, Roper and the players under his direction are not satisfied.

“It’s always an onward process,” Roper said. “There’s always things you can get better at.”