Whether fake punts, dynamic returns, or plays that no one can comprehend, Chuck Zodda highlights the keys to the third phase of the game. Today, he looks at Duke kicker Ross Martin and how he has quietly become of the of the top college kickers in the country.
It would be easy to say that Duke Blue Devils kicker Ross Martin should be exactly where he is today – one of the best kickers in college football and on his way to the NFL. The view from 30,000 feet looks relatively tame. Martin was the #1 high school kicker in his class by Rivals.com and the #2 kicker according to Scout.com, ESPN.com. and 247Sports.com. He was a high school All-American in USA Today, Under Armour, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN.com. Not content to simply be a great high school kicker, he also averaged 40.55 yards per punt during his senior year, and set the Under Armour All-American Game record with a gross punting average of 50.1 yards per kick on seven punts during the game. Basic logic tells us that Martin’s path has gone exactly as planned.
But Martin is somewhat of an outlier for kickers making the transition to college football.
Austin Hardin, ESPN.com’s top kicker in 2012 and current Florida Gators kicker, is 14 for 29 throughout his career. Bradley Pinion, the #3 kicker in Martin’s class, ended up becoming a punter, albeit an incredibly successful one currently averaging 43.5 yards per punt for the San Francisco 49ers. Nick Jordan, the next kicker on the list, started for Texas during his freshman year, but went 9 for 15, and has now been relegated to a backup role. Out of the top 10 kickers from his class, only Roberto Aguayo, the #6 kicker according to ESPN.com, has been able to remain an upper-echelon kicker in college football.
So what makes Martin so special?
Martin, like many kickers, played soccer throughout his high school career.
“I was always a soccer player, but also played tackle football,” Martin says. “I was just a linebacker and running back in fifth through eighth grade.”
As he progressed through high school, it became apparent that he may possess the talent to kick at the next level.
“[At the] end of my sophomore year, I realized I might have a future in kicking and started going to more of the nationally ranked camps to get proper training,” Martin notes. “After my sophomore summer, going into my junior year was when I decided to give up soccer and focus on kicking.”
After being successful on the summer kicking circuit, Martin chose Duke largely because of the natural balance between academics and athletics.
“When I was going through the entire recruiting process, I was always looking for the best combination of athletics for football and academics. I looked from coast to coast and Duke was always at the top of my list as a school I thought would reach that perfect balance,” he says. “[I] met with the coaching staff, kicked in front of Coach Cut, and as soon as they offered me a scholarship, I knew in my mind I was ready to go here.
Martin’s natural talent is noticeable after watching just a few kicks. In 2014, Duke faced off with Syracuse in an important conference battle, looking to move to 8-1 overall and 4-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. With 9:26 remaining in the 1st quarter, Martin and the Duke kicking unit took the field to attempt a 27-yard field goal:
The ball is placed dead-center in the field on this chip shot, giving us a great view of Martin’s natural mechanics. He steps off the basic three-steps-back-and-two-steps-to-his-left, lining up his kick with the center upright. Prior to the snap, Martin’s eyes are locked on his target zone, his focus on the task at hand.
Like many kickers, Martin takes a jab step with his plant leg to get moving. This six-to-eight inch step starts the direct line between the kicker and his target, allowing Martin to approach the ball in a quick, fast motion with little wasted horizontal action. This forward momentum is then transferred on the plant step and converted into torque as Martin whips his leg through the kicking zone:
Just like a golfer looking to create a stable swing plane, Martin takes a perfect path through the zone, effectively converting the energy from his approach into the force required to drive the ball with power and accuracy. Martin makes contact with the hard bone on top of his foot, as this provides a smooth and firm surface to transfer this energy into the kick. The result is an easy make for Martin.
While this was not a difficult kick by any means, it clearly shows the clean and efficient approach that Martin possesses, one that provides him with the backbone for his success. But the key to being a successful kicker is being able to translate that approach into all situations. College kickers will face pressure from opposing crowds, the expectations of friendly fans, as well as everything happening around them on the field. Overcoming those factors and focusing on the kick is key to any kicker’s long-term success. This is one area where Martin excels.
“Kicking is incredibly mental, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable has been the thing I have gotten best at,” he says. “There isn’t a person out there who wouldn’t get nervous going into a game with a high-pressure situation. It is just about being comfortable in those high-pressure situations and realizing that just because my body is more amped up than a practice situation, I have to slow down my body, slow down my tempo, and get ultra-specific with my mechanics to make sure I follow through.”
Martin shows his chops on a longer and angled kick against Wake Forest from the final game of the 2014 regular season. With 10:53 remaining in the 2nd quarter, he lines up for a 45-yard attempt from the left hash:
Martin steps off his regular approach, but it is important to note that he still aligns this approach with the center upright, meaning he begins to angle himself off to the left of where he would typically line up. This is done in order to effectively create the same swing plane on any kick. This is nearly identical to how a golfer will adjust his stance in the event of unfavorable terrain in order to do the same thing. Being able to process this information in real-time allows Martin to give himself the same base that he showed on his earlier kick.
In case it was not been made clear yet, the similarities to golf and kicking continue here. Regardless of the location of the kick, the key to kicking is to transfer the momentum of the approach directly through the target, as this maintains accuracy for a kicker. Martin does this flawlessly here, and the result is a make from 45 yards. He makes this look easy, but this is a long and difficult kick for a college kicker.
Martin is open when discussing how he has adjusted to the college game over time.
“I have gotten better with that over the years, when I was starting as a true freshman, very jittery, everything was new.”
As a true freshman in 2012, these jitters did not show up in his results, as Martin was 20 for 23 on field goals, even connecting on a 52-yarder against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. But he was unable to carry this over to the 2013, where he disappointingly went 13 for 19, including missing 4 of eight kicks in the last four games of the season. While some may view this negatively, what happened next is a testament to Martin’s character.
He bounced back from the 2013 season, going 19 for 21 in his junior campaign. While many kickers may have shad difficulty moving past the struggles of the previous season, Martin effectively put them behind him and finished fourth nationally in accuracy for kickers with more than 10 attempts.
Nowhere was this toughness more apparent than in a recent game against Virginia Tech. Earlier in the game, Martin had missed an angled 29-yard kick that would have put the Blue Devils up 17-10. Now facing a 42-yard attempt with a 21-16 lead in the 4th quarter, Martin came on to the field again:
Martin takes his regular approach, his eyes once again staring straight through the target area. In a hostile environment in Blacksburg, Virginia, he signals his holder, punter Will Monday, for the snap:
He strikes the ball cleanly, though he is slightly off-balance to the left. This minor shift in mechanics is nothing to be concerned about, as the majority of his weight is moving straight through the target. The kick sails through the uprights, putting Duke up 24-16 in a game they would eventually win in overtime:
One other notable item here is the distance that Martin carries on his field goals. This was a 42-yard kick that still struck near the middle of the uprights with room to spare. Martin is 4 for 6 on field goals greater than 50 yards in his career, and absolutely has the leg strength needed to play at the next level.
One area of concern for him is on kickoffs, where he has forced touchbacks on just 11 of 47 kicks. The NFL has seen a significant uptick in touchback percentage in recent years, and this will be an area Martin needs to improve on if he wants to remain elite at the next level. He clearly has the leg strength necessary, and it may simply be a small change in technique that allows his natural power to show through on kickoffs.
Beyond what is visible on tape, Martin’s approach to being a member of the football team is something that stands out among specialists as well.
“When I was in high school, my main kicking coach, his big teaching point for me was to always compete during practice. I carried that over into college, in the weight room, during sprints, during any conditional, “ he notes. “Especially in the offseason, if they see all the specialists doing all the lifts and running and see us competing with all the guys, it really helps to break down the separation.”
Martin is certainly not separate from his Duke teammates, as he is a major reason why they have become a force in the ACC Coastal Division. His focus on his craft and dedication to improving both the mental and physical aspects of his game have allowed him to thrive at the college level. While Martin still has a handful of games left this season, it is clear that he possesses the traits necessary to be successful at the next level.
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Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy ESPN & FOX Sports South.