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Kickers aren't in Kansas anymore

Posted Jun 15, 2017

With the Bengals breaking for summer vacation after Thursday’s last practice of mandatory minicamp, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons heads to the farm after no one in his kicking competition bought the farm. Randy Bullock, Jake Elliott, and Jonathan Brown are all within percentage points of each other after they tried about 80 field goals each in team situations this spring. “No one has an edge. It’s all pretty even,” Simmons said this week.

Randy Bullock: the vet.

With the Bengals breaking for summer vacation after Thursday’s last practice of mandatory minicamp, special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons heads to the farm after no one in his kicking competition bought the farm.

Randy Bullock, Jake Elliott, and Jonathan Brown are all within percentage points of each other after they tried about 80 field goals each in team situations this spring.

“No one has an edge. It’s all pretty even,” Simmons said this week. “When you have 80 kicks and you have those percentages, that’s pretty damn close.”

Close? Asked if his kicker won’t be decided until the Aug. 31 pre-season finale in Indianapolis, Simmons shrugged.

“I would imagine so. You want the most information you can get before making a decision like that,” he said.

If it’s the third week in June and school is out for the Bengals, then that means Simmons is headed to the family farm in Elkhart, tucked in the far southwest corner of Kansas along the Oklahoma border and five miles west of Colorado. Ever since he has been able to drive the combine at age 17 he has helped at every harvest, which is to say this will be his 27th straight year cutting the wheat.

But it is the first time he’ll be faced with cutting two kickers since no one anywhere around here can remember three kickers heading into an NFL training camp so closely bunched together like, well, wheat.  And it’s his first full-blown camp kicking competition in his 15 seasons with the Bengals. But Simmons didn’t have to read up on his last one, which he reckons came in his last year as the Panthers assistant special teams coach between John Kasay and Shayne Graham.

“It’s pretty much head-to-head competition. That’s what it is,” Simmons said. “Same situations, same environment. You want to compare apples to apples.”

There is something for everyone in this NFL Melting Pot competition. There is the recycled veteran working in his sixth season on his fifth team. There is the high-regarded rookie coming out of the draft in Elliott. And then there is …

“The mystery,” said Brown with a wide smile. “I don’t think anyone has ever made their first field goal ever in an NFL game.”

Jake Elliott: the draft pick.

Brown, 24, a former soccer player in the USA program from Clinton, Miss., is late to the party. But he’s been the life of it because he’s so interesting. He only kicked off 10 times at Louisville and never tried a field goal in a game before surfacing in the Bengals spring camps last season after impressing at the Cardinals pro day. A foot injury sustained running sprints almost as soon as he got here wiped out his bid. But he’s back and he’s been dropping jaws with a very big foot, at times sailing the ball over the net behind the goal posts.

“He’s got a huge leg. Massive,” Elliott said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The 5-10, 197-pound Brown loves watching Ravens Pro Bowler Justin Tucker because of his 50-yard leg and pond-calm demeanor, and he’s intrigued with the idea of becoming the first established African-American kicker. And he’s a smart guy.

“I know they’re probably saying, ‘He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,’” Brown said. “That’s OK. Let’s see how it plays out. It’s very interesting … because of my leg strength and I’m able to get away with mis-hits some times. But I’ve been trying to kick it the same way every time and develop the consistency.”

Simmons is watching. The kid isn’t a fake news guy in a two-man race.

“He’s got a fantastic leg. A ton of natural ability,” Simmons said. “He just doesn’t have the experience.”

Of course, Simmons is watching everyone and everything. Each kick is charted and filmed. Not just field goals, but kickoffs. Usually he’s back in Kansas the day after minicamp. Not this time. He’s going Saturday. Yes, his son has a ballgame, but there are loose ends to tie up after a competition.

Elliott, 22, acts like he’s been here before and, in a way, he has.

“I’ve been through a bunch of the showcase games where everything you do is filmed. It’s kind of like that atmosphere here. It’s not a whole lot different,” Elliott said.

Because of the tight practice schedule, they rotate which two kickers take the three or four field goal tries late in each practice. Usually there is some type of caveat tied to it. On Thursday, with Bullock and Elliott head to head, head coach Marvin Lewis offered to wipe out the last period of practice if both hit their last one from 54 yards away on the right hash.

Jonathan Brown: the mystery.

They did.

This stuff gets real. Lewis also iced them from 51 and they each made it.

“Coach Lewis understands it. The team feels the pressure out there,” Simmons said. “That’s why we do it like that. Every kick matters.”

It may have been more impressive for Elliott since he yanked a kick from the right hash on the 42. He says he won’t let it fester in his mind during the 43 days before the first training camp practice.

“It was a good bounce back,” Elliott said. “I’ve got a one kick limit. It has to be all about the next kick.”

Simmons is very big on that bouncing back stuff and overcoming adversity with a strong mindset. Some believe it is Elliott’s makeup that convinced Simmons to make him the first kicker drafted and if it is then Simmons has seen nothing to make him second guess.

“He’s done fine. He’s everything I thought he would be and then some probably,” Simmons said. “He’s very sharp mentally; he’s very into it, very focused. It doesn’t seem too big for him.”

And Simmons knows it certainly isn’t too big for Bullock, the only one of them who has tried a field goal in an NFL game. Bullock, 27, knows it, too. Making it so practice is over early? How about lining up the 43-yarder to win it in Houston Christmas Eve at the gun and it doesn’t go?

“I’m relying on my experience, my preparation,” Bullock said. “Everybody watches. Everybody knows. It’s broadcast.”

That was his only miss of the six he tried for the Bengals late last season and he says those three weeks have been a big help this spring because he’s got a routine with long snapper Clark Harris and holder Kevin Huber. He wasn’t in a camp last year and didn’t get the call until the week before a one game stint with the Giants.

“That’s been really beneficial for me,” Bullock said. “It’s the first time I’ve been with three kickers. We’ve all kicked well and it’s made us better. You know exactly where you stand and I’m pleased where I stand.”

Bullock isn’t buying that Elliott has the edge because he’s a draft pick: “I think it’s going to be performance-based.”

You hear stories about teams where competing kickers don’t speak. These guys are all business. It’s more like a hardware convention, but they speak and mingle.

“When we get together as a team it’s a little more intense,” Bullock said. “We all get along. We do a good job pushing each other.”

Elliott and Bullock are both avid golfers (Elliott has a 4 handicap), but they have yet to play.

“We were going to the other day, but I had to come in here for some rookie (orientation),” Elliott said, “so (Huber and Bullock) went. We’re going to do it at some point.”

And it’s not tight enough that it can’t be fun. As they practiced kickoffs kicking from sideline-to-sideline, Lewis told Bullock to take aim at a rather plump, elderly media member wearing a Red Sox hat. As Lewis came into the locker room after practice they had a laugh.

“That first nasty story about me is on you,” Bullock told Lewis.

It’s on everybody now that training camp is here.

They’re not in Kansas anymore.

 

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