UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It would be hard to find a player on Penn State's roster who has improved more during his time as a Nittany Lion than senior kicker Sam Ficken.
Mid-way through the 2012 season, the Indiana native put his nose to the grindstone and worked to become a more reliable player for the Nittany Lions. Thousands of repetitions, relentless work in the weight room and regular feedback from Chicago Bear Robbie Gould later, and Ficken is on track to be a consistent weapon for the Nittany Lions in 2014 following a superb spring practice period.
Ficken made his final 10 field goal attempts of 2012 and his first five of 2013 to break the Penn State record of consecutive made field goals. During that span, he set the Beaver Stadium record for the longest kick by a Penn State player against Kent State (54 yards).
In total, Ficken went 15-for-23 on field goal attempts in 2013. He was perfect on kicks from inside 30 yards, and he went 41-of-42 on PAT attempts. Ficken's leg strength was a big factor in the upswing from 2012 to 2013. He made zero kicks of 40 or more yards in 2012. In 2013, he made five kicks of 43 yards or more, including the 54-yard boot against Kent State. Ficken also averaged 61 yards per kickoff and had 18 touchbacks.
The bulk of his work to tweak mechanics came during the offseason prior to 2013. Ficken shortened his step sequence from two and a half to two steps. He also worked tirelessly on the position of his plant foot.
Now, Ficken is focused on consistency.
"My big thing is staying consistent, staying healthy," Ficken said. "I think based on my changes that I made between the two seasons (2012 and 2013), I think my form is good. I've looked at every game, basically two or three times. I think the biggest thing for me is sticking to my fundamentals that I've learned from Robbie (Gould) and just following through with that and staying consistent."
Ficken's positive attitude and work ethic are noteworthy attributes to his tangible progress. He faced his share of adversity during the first half of 2012, but he never lost focus on becoming the best player he could be for the team.
"When it comes to special teams, you lead by example as a specialist," Ficken said. "It's hard to lead if you aren't doing your job to the best of your abilities. I feel like with all of the experience I have, I definitely feel like I have an upper hand in that area where I can show that, 'hey, this is what needs to be done.'"
The Nittany Lions have put a big emphasis on special teams improvement during spring practice. Ficken has enjoyed working with new special teams coordinator Charles Huff.
"He's really enthusiastic about special teams, which is great," Ficken said. "He's really bringing a lot of energy to it. That is really motivating the players to put their best foot forward on special teams, which I really like."
The special teams unit has been thrust into the spotlight throughout spring drills. At the end of practices, the specialists are challenged with competitions, often with team conditioning on the line. Coach Franklin then adds to the challenge by putting water on balls to make them more difficult to handle, spraying water at the specialists themselves or calling timeouts to "ice" the unit. None of that has fazed Ficken, who has been solid since practice began on March 17. He nailed a 55-yard field goal to save the team from running during a practice earlier this spring.
"Ficken has been money all of camp," running back Akeel Lynch said. "He's made a lot of improvement. Anytime it has been double or nothing for running at the end of practice, we put it on Ficken's leg and he's been clutch every time."
"The team gets really excited when we come through for them at the end of practice," Ficken said.
A small, but very significant factor to Ficken's consistency this spring is the return of longtime holder Ryan Keiser. Keiser suffered a hand injury during the Kent State game last fall and did not hold during the final eight games of the season.
Just how important is consistency in a kicking operation?
In games with Keiser holding, Ficken went 7-for-8 on field goal attempts and 16-for-16 on point after touchdown attempts in 2013. His lone miss was a 57-yard attempt against UCF.
In games without his primary holder, Ficken went 8-for-15 on field goal attempts and 25-for-26 on point after touchdown attempts.
Keiser and Ficken are back to full strength as a kicking unit this spring.
"We basically have picked up right where we were when he went down with the injury," Ficken said. "It's definitely good to have him back. I've worked with (Chris) Gulla in the offseason just in case something happens again."
With continued progress and consistency during the rest of the offseason, the sky is the limit for Ficken in 2014.
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