Kickoffs in college football have the potential to become some of the most exciting plays in the sport. A return to the house can reverse the momentum of a game and ignite a previously dreary atmosphere.
But it is P.J. Rosowksi’s job to prevent just that. Rosowski, the University of Wisconsin football team’s kickoff specialist, maintains the goal of depositing the ball deep into the end zone or beyond for a touchback, thus preventing a return and the possibility of a game-changing play, thus forcing opponents to begin their drives from the 25-yard line.
Rosowski said a touchback is his goal every time he winds up a kickoff, unless he has instructions from the coaching staff to utilize a different kicking tactic, such as kicking it high and allowing the coverage team to pin the ball closer to the opposition’s goal line, or executing a squib kick.
“I know probably as soon as I hit it where it’s going to be and where it’s going,” Rosowski said.
The key to a perfect kickoff, he said, is keeping his eyes trained on the exact spot he desires his foot to connect with the leather of the football. That method has proved to be effective this season. On Rosowski’s 54 kickoff attempts, he has forced a touchback 34 times (62.9 percent). Only Iowa’s Ron Colluzi (69.4 percent) forces touchbacks at a higher clip in the Big Ten. For Wisconsin, it is a dramatic increase from last season, when UW only recorded touchbacks on 13 of its 71 kickoffs.
UW head coach Paul Chryst said Rosowski’s effectiveness is a boon for the Badgers.
“What he’s done and contributed has been really good for our team,” Chyrst said. “So often, you hear about hitting yards and I think that’s an area where you don’t have to stress every time you’re covering a kickoff, because we know the potential for a big play that kickoff returns have.”
When Chryst says that, he means Iowa’s Desmond King’s return toward the end of UW’s 17-9 win in Iowa City on Oct. 22. King reeled off a 77-yard return, setting the Hawkeyes up in prime field position. Prior to that return, the Badgers had allowed only 14.7 yards per return, which had ranked first in the nation. Now, Wisconsin averages 17.9 yards per return.
The art of kickoffs can seem monotonous — simply lining up and kicking the ball as far as you can. But Rosowski said he keeps it fresh by trying to bring energy to every kick. Also, he spends a good deal of time on his specialty kicks, like onsides or squibs.
Chryst said he always knew Rosowski had a strong leg and would put himself in position for this opportunity. He saw that much during practices, but wasn’t sure how it would translate to the games.
“It’s been fun to see what he’s been doing and I know guys on the team appreciate it. He works at it,” Chryst said. “He takes it seriously. It’s fun to see him have his niche. He’s truly contributing, and in many ways, in a big way.”
Challenges Rosowski will face as the season goes on, Chryst said, is the colder weather approaching, which hardens the ball and makes it harder to kick.
Rosowksi challenged freshman Anthony Lotti for primary punting duties during training camp, and while Lotti has taken that role, Rosowski still contributes in that aspect of the game. Rosowski said the competition — past and present — brings out the best between the two of them.
“There’s always guys pushing each other and I think that’s the best thing about this team,” he said.