Mike Leach wants 'a pile of kickers' at Mississippi State football's disposal

Andy Kostka
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

STARKVILLE — Mike Leach wasn’t joking.

When the Mississippi State football coach said after Saturday’s 31-28 loss to Arkansas that he planned to hold an open tryout for a new kicker, some might’ve seen it as an empty threat, or a motivation tactic to get Brandon Ruiz and Nolan McCord back on track.

But Leach said Monday he wants to create a stockpile of walk-on kickers, something he did with other programs at previous stops. And he didn’t rule out adding competition for McCord and Ruiz during the season, either, with plenty of interested kickers reaching out to the team.

“We want to have a pile of kickers that are available that we cultivate, develop,” Leach said. “Over the years, most of my kickers have been walk-on guys that have developed and improved to the point where they become the starting kicker.”

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Leach felt such measures were necessary after Ruiz missed field goals from 23 yards and 46 yards against Arkansas. The Bulldogs (5-4, 3-3 SEC) inserted McCord, a freshman whose career long is 39 yards, for the final two extra points. McCord also attempted the game-tying 40-yard try, but his effort flew wide left, with a low snap perhaps playing a factor.

Ruiz and McCord have combined to make 9 of their 17 attempts this season, with a 1 for 7 record on kicks from 40 yards or longer. Leach said he doesn’t know who is going to be the starting kicker against Auburn (6-3, 3-2) on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN), but the coaching staff will evaluate their options this week in practice.

“The thing is, there’s a ball, and you kick it, and it really doesn’t matter if a bunch of 7-year-olds are watching or if five million Mongol warriors on horses getting ready to shoot their bows and arrows at you, because, I mean, you approach the ball and kick it,” Leach said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Leach has gone through this before. He mentioned how one kicker tried out for three straight years; he was cut all three times. But the kicker was determined, and when he made the team, he became the starter. There was another time a walk-on kicker played ahead of a kicker on scholarship.

 "I’ll do that without any hesitation, because whoever plays the best and helps us be successful is the guy we want out there,” said Leach.

At previous stops, Leach would tend to have a list of 40 kicking options to choose from, and “some would kick it worse than you would think. Like worse than you can, for example.”

But there were some who were diamonds in the rough, and if they continued to attend practices, they stayed on the list of options. Given a few years, they could find their way on the field. One of the best kickers Leach ever had was Alex Trlica at Texas Tech, a walk-on who finished his career with an NCAA record 233 extra points without a miss.

And at Texas Tech in 2008, Leach watched as Matt Williams came out of the stands for a third-quarter field goal contest. Williams nailed a 30-yard field goal to win free rent — or so he thought. The kick actually won him a place on the Red Raiders.

"I said, ‘Go get that guy. What does it hurt? Stick him in the pile here,’ ” Leach recalled. “So the equipment guys ran him down, found him, got his information. He came by the office, and it turned out he was eligible that year. Right then, that year. And so about two weeks later, we’re playing No. 10 Kansas at Kansas, and he hit nine extra points that day. How ‘bout that? Nine in a row.”

Now Leach is preparing to stockpile kickers at Mississippi State, a tactic he feels is tried and true throughout his coaching career.

“I just want to have a pile of kickers,” Leach said. “And I want to develop them over time.”