Teams with top-flight kickers have significant advantage Friday nights
When Mt. Lebanon's Mike Melnyk finished his college kicking career at Michigan in 1984, he had a good idea of where he wanted to make an impact in coaching.
“I thought, geez, there's not a lot of guys who get a lot of real good technical coaching for kicking,” Melnyk said. “It's been sort of a passion of mine.”
Last season, that passion helped guide Dimitri Orfanopoulos to converting on a school-record six field goal attempts, one short of the WPIAL leaders. And as Melnyk breaks in new kicker Rob Costantino this year, his team will be among several in the WPIAL hoping to control field position with big boots.
Kiski Area coach Dave Heavner, whose roster includes heavily recruited kicking/punting prospect Adam Mitcheson, said his team spends a third of every practice working on kicking and special teams.
“A lot of people overlook (special teams), but to me, I see us gaining yards or losing yards because of our special teams,” Heavner said.
This season, he hopes Mitcheson's range will shorten the field on offense and give coaches peace of mind in knowing they can still pick up a field goal if more aggressive play calling causes a drive to fizzle.
Melnyk, who coached 21-year NFL veteran Jason Hanson as an assistant at Washington State, thinks a good kicker can allow for a more conservative game plan, too.
“You don't always have to go for (a touchdown) because you're out of field goal range,” he said.
Defensively, Heavner pointed to a punt Mitcheson cranked 65 yards in a 7-0 win over Altoona last season as an example of the momentum-shifting effect a long kick can have in a one-possession game. He believes pinning the opponent deep stopped a prime Altoona scoring chance before its offense even took the field, a philosophy he shares with Melnyk.
“Most good coaches know the percentages of scores by the opponent starting at the 20 (on a touchback) is a lot lower,” Melnyk said. “The closer they start with the ball, the percentages of the other team scoring go up tremendously.”
For that reason, he preaches the importance of limiting “hidden yardage” by getting kickoffs into the end zone and stopping opponents' returns past the 20-yard line before they can start.
Finding high schoolers to fill that role can sometimes be a challenge, though. Melnyk, himself a former soccer player, tries to remedy that by recruiting players from the soccer team as he did with Costantino.
That's how South Fayette's Brian Coyne found his way into football. After meeting coach Joe Rossi in an eighth grade gym class, he made the jump to football, and last season converted four field goals and 70 extra points. He thinks his soccer background eased the transition and gave him an advantage in the kicking game.
“When you're hitting the ball with your foot, the motion's the same. Everything else — the follow-through — that's the same,” Coyne said.
Mitcheson comes from a soccer background, too. He made the switch in eighth grade after casually trying out football, kicking with his dad after seventh grade soccer practices.
Now he's drawing interest from schools, including Marshall, Old Dominion, Syracuse and Temple. This summer, he kicked in front of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer at a Columbus camp after impressing in a preliminary workout. He said the experience was stressful, but fun, and gave him a chance to face pressure without a game being on the line.
Before he moves on, Mitcheson is responding to the same call Melnyk once felt. This summer, he's helped a youth player in his neighborhood get some training to possibly become Kiski Area's next game-changing kicker.
“I enjoy doing it,” Mitcheson said. “Someone helped me when I was his age, so I just want to give back.”