Penn State kicker Ficken getting off on the right foot
UNIVERSITY PARK — Sam Ficken believes his worst day might have been what turned around his career.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien agrees.
With the one-year anniversary of Ficken missing four field goals in a game that cost the Nittany Lions a win, Ficken's renaissance is complete. The junior was named Big Ten special teams player of the week Monday and carries a streak of 13 consecutive field goals into Saturday when Penn State hosts Eastern Michigan at noon.
That game will be played 364 days after Ficken was the target of craven anonymous taunts via social media after the Lions lost 17-16 at Virginia. Ficken missed a 42-yard field goal with a chance to win the game after previously missing from 40, 38 and 20 yards that afternoon in Charlottesville.
“At the end of the day,” O'Brien said, “it was maybe one of the best things that happened to him.”
Ficken said the sobering performance serves as motivation, even a year later — even as he's moved past it. Ficken made all three of his field-goal attempts and booted four of his six kickoffs into the end zone against the Orange.
That's a far cry from a sophomore season in which he missed seven of his first 11 field-goal attempts after winning the kicker job by default following the transfer of Anthony Fera late last summer.
Earlier that year, as Ficken finished up his freshman year at Penn State and about the time he would lose a competition against Fera that O'Brien orchestrated during spring workouts, Ficken met former Penn State kicker Robbie Gould.
Gould, a nine-year NFL veteran with the Chicago Bears and an All-Pro in 2006, gave Ficken his number and encouraged him to call for advice. After the nightmare in Virginia last September, Gould suggested going over film together.
Ficken ultimately rebounded, gaining confidence in himself — and from O'Brien, who had developed a reputation for going for it on fourth downs in lieu of calling on Ficken. Ficken made his final 10 attempts of 2012.
Then, during the offseason, Lions strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald convinced Ficken to tweak his workout regimen. Ficken also modified his footwork in consultation with Gould.
Instead of a 2½-step approach, he was taking two strides. “It kind of took out a little room for error,” Ficken said.
None of it — not the streamlined fundamentals, the overhauled mental toughness and self-confidence, the added lower-body strength — might have happened without Ficken first hitting rock bottom that early-September Saturday a year ago.
“I don't think I would have worked on my fundamentals as much — I'd probably still be doing a 2½-step — and not to say I was lazy before, but working with Robbie, he really kind of taught me how to practice,” Ficken said. “That meant making everything into a game situation.”
Now, there are far more game situations in which Ficken has earned the trust of O'Brien and his teammates. It's safe to say that 11 months ago, Ficken wouldn't have been given the opportunity to attempt a 46-yarder like he did against Syracuse.
“He's a great kicker, and his key to success — like it is with any kicker — is attitude,” holder Ryan Keiser said. “He showed that last year, kept a good attitude and stayed confident in himself and, mostly, he worked really hard in the offseason. It shows.”