Walk-on kickers carry key roles in national semifinal
scottsdale, ariz.» Two years ago, Tyler Durbin was kicking around a soccer ball at James Madison University. Greg Huegel was a freshman watching Clemson football games from the stands.
Now one of them could face a nervewracking shot at determining whether No. 2 Ohio State (11-1, CFP No. 3) or Clemson (12-1, CFP No. 2) wins Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl and advances to the College Football Playoff championship game.
“Every kicker, I think, always dreams of kicking that game-winning field goal,” Durbin said Thursday. “It puts a lot of pressure on you, but that’s why you’re in the business.”
Durbin is still a nonscholarship player, taking over as the Buckeyes’ kicker when Sean Nuernberger suffered a groin injury in preseason camp this year.
“He’s seized the opportunity and had a phenomenal year. We love him to death,” special-teams coach Kerry Coombs said. “The first football game of his life was our opener this year.”
At Clemson, Huegel practiced three or four times per week, made regular contact with special-teams coach Danny Pearman and entered a kicking competition before the 2015 season.
“I knew that I wanted to walk on, just because I didn’t have anything to lose,” Huegel said.
After a standout first season, Huegel has a scholarship now.
Durbin knows a whole lot about pressure too. Through 11 games this season, he was 16-for-17 on field goals, with his only miss being a block on the road against Penn State.
Then came the Buckeyes’ regularseason finale, against rival Michigan.
In an intense, close game, Durbin missed twice — once from 37 yards, and later a 21-yard chip shot. Coombs approached his downcast kicker.
“I walked down there and saw him after he missed the second one,” Coombs said. “I don’t usually talk to him during the game, but I gave him my wristband.” It reads E + R = O, Event plus Response equals Outcome, a program motto that Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer picked up from motivational speakers.
Coombs said he told his young kicker, “You’re going to make the kick to win the game.” Not quite, but it was a season-saver. Moments later, Durbin jogged onto the field and nailed a 23-yard field goal with one second left to send the game into overtime. Ohio State eventually won 30-27 in two overtimes.