Jack Russell took the field Saturday night late in the first quarter to kick an extra point, and the changing of the guard was complete.
Redshirt junior Kyle French, the starter for the last year-and-a-half, was out of the game and the unproven sophomore was in.
But the move was a long time coming.
Head coach Gary Andersen established a weekly kicking battle between French and Russell during the first few weeks of the season. It was after French missed a 38-yard field goal against Northwestern that Andersen decided to jump ship and give Russell the start against Illinois.
Russell did not attempt a single field goal in that game, and he has yet to make a field goal — missing all three of his chances spread over the last two seasons.
The plot thickened Monday when French announced via Twitter he would be leaving the program at the end of the season, in a mutual decision with the coaching staff, to pursue other professional interests.
But that is only half of the story when it comes to the kicking game this year. The other half’s name is Andrew Endicott.
Endicott, a true freshman and walk-on from Roseville, Calif., has been taking kickoffs for the Badgers since week four, a role that he never thought he would fall into so quickly.
“Obviously as a true freshman, it’s been great just trying to make the seniors proud,” Endicott said. “At the beginning of the season, I said whether it’s on the scout team or giving the return team a good look, that’s fine. It worked out to where it is and it feels good.”
On the season, Endicott is averaging 60.3 yards per kickoff — the lowest average of the three kickers — but special teams coach Jeff Genyk says what has really impressed him is the amount of hang time the first-year player has gotten on his kicks.
“He has higher hang time, which allows us to get better coverage downfield on their returner and that is important,” Genyk said.
Together Endicott and Russell make up Wisconsin’s kicking game this season.
Some kickers might see it as a lack of trust from the coaching staff that they have to share the role, but both young Wisconsin kickers seem to have embraced it as they try to hone their skills at the college level.
“I definitely think it helps us to focus on just one aspect of the game,” Endicott said. “He doesn’t have to worry about kickoffs and then, same for me, I don’t have to worry about field goals. It’s one less thing in the back of our minds.”
With all of the drama now behind them — the weekly starting battles, French’s misses and recent departure — the two kickers will try to get back to what’s important: making field goals and perfecting kickoffs.
It hasn’t been easy.
Russell is the first to admit that any kicker’s confidence can’t help but be shaken when you see how easily a player can be traded in for someone new when things go wrong.
“It has [affected our confidence] a little bit,” Russell said. “Having that competition week in and week out, not really knowing who is going to be playing what position, but come Saturday we just have to be ready to play. It can be tough.”
No room for error
With their starting position on the line each week, Russell and Endicott’s relationship is competitive by nature.
Practicing while mostly separated from the rest of the team, their preparations are built on one-on-one competition, which Endicott says is one of the few ways to replicate the stress and tension of a game-like scenario.
Further exacerbating that competition is the very nature of the position. Evaluation of kickers is stats-driven to a much greater extent than many of the other positions on the field, and for a field goal kicker in particular, there isn’t much of a gray area; you either make the kick or you don’t.
For a kicker, a down week in practice won’t just earn him a slap on the wrist, but could easily lead to him losing a starting spot, as Andersen seems to have indicated in his decision to remove French.
And yet, despite the harsh reality of kicking, Russell and Endicott have a friendly relationship. The pair prefer to look at how they can grow and learn from each other, rather than worry about being displaced by the other in the starting lineup.
“We get along really well,” Endicott said. “It’s been fun. Obviously we are competing, but we both feel pretty good with where we are at.”
While it may not be perfect, the ragtag team of Endicott and Russell has done the job asked of it on a team that has not required a field kicker’s services all too often, as Wisconsin has only taken nine field goals through the first seven games. While some of this seems to have to do with the coaching staff’s reluctance to attempt a field goal, it also has to do with the efficiency of the offense this year — an offense that has scored a touchdown on 72 percent of its trips to the red zone.
Still, Russell will be the first to point out that he is content when redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon and senior James White are running the opponent ragged and scoring touchdowns, even if it means he only comes on for extra points.
“Like at Illinois this past week, if all I’m kicking are extra points because we are scoring touchdowns, I’m OK with that,” Russell said. “I just want us to win.”