Griffin Oakes didn’t want to watch one second of film from the 2016 season once it mercifully came to an end.
Oakes, the 2015 Big Ten Kicker of the Year, had stumbled his way to making just 16 of 26 field goals in 2016. Out of 109 qualified kickers in the FBS, Oakes’ 61.5 percent field goal rate ranked 98th. He missed more field goals than anyone in the country.
But when the offseason came around, Oakes knew that dwelling on what went wrong last season might only further shake his confidence.
“It was a waste of time,” Oakes said of his junior year. “I literally re-watched all film from 2015 when I had a more successful year and just kind of looked at each thing I did and tried to mimic it as best I could.”
As Oakes searched for the right adjustments to regain his form, he started by addressing himself. Getting in better shape and forgetting about the season that had just unfolded were part of that equation. Forming a tighter connection with his kicking unit was another.
When a kicker runs on the field and swings his leg to propel the football dozens of yards through the air, fans tend to stare solely at him. If the ball splits the uprights, the kicker gets congratulatory slaps from teammates. If the ball shanks left or right, it’s the kicker whose head hangs in shame as he shuffles off the field.
But what’s important to note, and what IU has shown this season, is the role others play in getting the ball to where Oakes’ foot meets it. A snapper, a holder and eight blockers all work in harmony to provide the perfect conditions for their strong-legged leader. That harmony is only established through endless practice, junior long snapper Dan Godsil said.
“Special teams is all repetition,” Godsil said. “The snap, you do it over and over until it’s the same thing every time. The hold is the same thing; the kick is the same thing.”
Last season, the field goal unit was out of sorts. There was turnover at both the long snapper and holder position from 2015 to 2016. Godsil took over as field goal snapper after working only on punts the year before. And after four-year holder Erich Toth graduated in 2015, senior wide receiver Mitchell Paige and sophomore punter Joseph Gedeon split time replacing Toth in 2016.
Paige wound up as the primary holder for most of the season, but he had many other duties to attend to as a senior captain and IU’s second-leading receiver. This severely limited the amount of practice time and the all-important repetition that Oakes could get.
“We weren’t getting as much work as we liked,” Godsil said. “I think trust was a thing that Griffin just didn’t have. You could just tell it wasn’t the routine we wanted.”
Throughout Oakes’ inconsistent 2016 campaign, Drew Conrad watched patiently with the rest of the special teams unit while redshirting. He knew he couldn’t play a role on the field that year, but waited for his chance to do something the following season.
When spring ball came around and Conrad was splitting reps at holder with freshman quarterback Peyton Ramsey, it was a role the punter wanted to take charge of. He approached Coach Tom Allen the night before IU’s 2017 spring game and spoke fervently about his desire to lead the kicking unit for his next four years at IU.
“I explained to [Allen] how I felt about the position,” Conrad said. “He could tell how passionate I was, and he’s a man of passion so he respected that a lot.”
Conrad earned the holder job for his redshirt freshman season. He’s still IU’s backup punter, but as a former kicker, Conrad is proud to make his mark on field goals. From the start of summer practices, Conrad, Godsil and Oakes began hammering home their routine.
In its summer workouts, the trio focused on maximizing repetitions with Allen’s mantra in mind — preparation creates confidence. Even if Oakes was taking a break from kicking, Conrad and Godsil practiced snaps while forcing the kicker to stand right next to them and watch.
With each of the three specialists focused solely on his job within the kicking unit, the players' constant work carried into the regular season, and it has paid off. Oakes is second in the FBS and first in the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 92.9 percent. His only missed field goal out of 14 attempts and only missed extra point out of 31 tries both came on blocked kicks. If Oakes gets the ball past the line of scrimmage, it’s going through the uprights.
“We’re kind of hitting on all cylinders right now, so it’s of one of those things where it transitions to practice,” Oakes said. “We’re very positive, very upbeat.”
To see the joy IU’s field goal squad is finding in the 2017 season, look no further than Conrad’s “campaign” for the half-joking, half-serious Mortell Holder of the Year Award. On Oct. 31, Conrad brought Oakes and sophomore backup kicker Logan Justus together for what they thought would be a simple, fun video.
More than 1,000 retweets later, Conrad became an unexpected viral sensation and one of 25 semifinalists for the award, which is in its third season of existence.
Former Minnesota punter Peter Mortell created and gave himself the award in 2015. Conrad isn't going all in on the award, which says it picks a winner based in part on post-kick celebrations that he and Oakes avoid performing for fear of getting a penalty. But the Hoosier specialists are still in it to win it.
“I did not expect it to do that,” Conrad said of his video’s explosion on social media. “It’s all in fun. We’ll have to come up with another good video in the coming weeks for my campaign.”
There’s more than just fun to be had in the coming weeks for Oakes, Conrad and company. As IU chases its third straight bowl appearance, Oakes is also climbing the Big Ten all-time leaderboard in made field goals.
Having already broken IU’s school record earlier this season, Oakes’ 66 career makes are currently good for 7th in conference history. He’ll climb into the top five with just three more field goals.
Ask Oakes and he’ll downplay the significance of his senior season, but there’s no denying the fact that time is running out for IU’s most prolific kicker in program history. As the number of games remaining in Oakes’ career decrease, the confidence level is only going up.
“Last year Griffin would go out there, and I feel like he would kick and just think, ‘I hope I don’t miss this,’” Conrad said. “But this year he’s going out there thinking, ‘I’m going to make this.’ It’s a very small difference, but it means all the world.”
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