It wasn’t supposed to end that way.
With the Fiesta Bowl tied 38-38 in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, a surgical Andrew Luck had just engineered what appeared to be the game-winning drive against a helplessly baffled Oklahoma State defense. Three seconds left in regulation and it couldn’t have been scripted better. Stanford placekicker Jordan Williamson lined up for a 35-yard field goal attempt in front of almost 14 million viewers, on the brink of vaulting the Cardinal to its second consecutive BCS bowl victory.
But the kick went wide left.
Another missed field goal in overtime, and the rest was history. The squandered opportunities not only sealed the Cardinal’s loss in that game, but also marked a disappointing end to the brilliant Luck era that saw one of the biggest turnarounds in school history. It was a tough ending for the Stanford faithful to swallow, but no one had it tougher than the young kicker himself.
“The kicker is either the hero or the scapegoat,” Williamson said. “It was difficult, especially because I’ve never been through anything like that before. It definitely took me a while to get back to feeling right and focusing on football. I think it was just a timing deal and letting everything go back to normal.”
In the aftermath of the Fiesta Bowl, Williamson’s long mental recovery process was made bumpier by the media’s finger-pointing. While there is no doubt that the placekicker was in a position to win the game for Stanford, the fact that he was battling with a hamstring injury was largely ignored. Williamson was close to perfect prior to the injury, hitting 11 field goals on 12 attempts, but upon returning to action, he managed to hit only two of his last seven attempts in the final three games of the season. Nowhere near 100 percent physically against Oklahoma State, he was responsible for all the kickoff duties in the game—a huge energy drainer—in addition to the five field goal attempts.
Whether that blame was fair or not, what’s important is that things are finally back to normal for Williamson as he begins his redshirt sophomore season. Thanks to the support of his entire team, he has moved past those miscues on that January night in Glendale.
“If I didn’t have the supportive teammates and coaches like I did, it would’ve been really difficult to come back,” he said. “Stanford students as well, they were just phenomenal and showed great support. It’s not like other schools, where it can be a lot worse, and I was happy to see that.”
Adding a fresh element to the kicking unit is special teams coordinator Pete Alamar, who is in his first year on the Farm. The former Fresno State coach also comes with a great wealth of experience in the Pac-12, having worked at Cal for seven seasons and Arizona for six. Alamar, who is excited about the Cardinal’s “nice balance of skill set” on special teams, commented that Williamson is “mentally at a great place” with a season of starting experience under his belt.
“My mindset has definitely changed,” Williamson agreed. “I think I’m a little bit more mature now that I know the ropes of how everything goes. It’ll be easier to get into a routine this year.”
Despite having earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in his first season as a starter, Williamson recognizes that there is still much improvement to be made. There’s no doubt surrounding his leg strength; last season he averaged over 66 yards on kickoffs, recorded eight touchbacks and nailed a 49-yarder against the wind in the Cardinal & White Spring Game. However, consistency from the longer distances is an area he may need to focus on after making just two out of six attempts that were in the 40-49-yard range last year. To achieve that greater consistency, Alamar has helped Williamson in reinforcing key techniques, such as keeping his head down, following through and not coming across his body during his kicks.
“We focus a lot more on drill work and technique,” Williamson said. “We didn’t really focus that much on technique in the past, and [coach Alamar] has spent a lot more time with the kickers and the punters, which is great.”
With college football’s newly implemented rule that moves the kickoff spot from the 30-yard line up to the 35, Williamson’s leg strength has the potential to allow the Cardinal to tally more touchbacks or pin opponents deeper in their own territory. Even so, maintaining his health is still the foremost concern. Williamson emphasizes that he has learned from his injury experiences last season, when “kicking too much in practice” and not “tapering himself” enough may have aggravated his hamstring.
Returning kicks will be sophomore wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who averaged over 25 yards in his 27 returns as a rookie. Besides an almost costly mistake in the Fiesta Bowl, Montgomery has been a dependable and physical returner in addition to his rising reputation as a deep threat wideout.
“Ty is big, strong, fast and physical,” Alamar commented. “Those are all the things you look for in a kick returner. When he gets the opportunity to have the ball in his hands, he’s very aggressive, which a kick returner has to be. All he needs is a foot and a half of space and he’ll hit the crease.”
Montgomery also proved his ability to respond to adversity in last year’s game against Washington State, when he redeemed a second-quarter fumble by returning a kickoff for a 96-yard touchdown on the last play of the game.
Because of Montgomery’s role as the top wide receiver on the team, head coach David Shaw insisted that the sophomore will not field every kickoff this year—similar to the protective measures that were set in place for Chris Owusu in the past.
“[Montgomery’s] our best kickoff returner,” Shaw said. “Sometimes we’ll put him out there, sometimes we won’t. Some games he’ll be the guy, some games he won’t be in at all and some games it might be one or two [returns].
He’s special in that capacity, but hopefully we got a couple other guys who can do the job.”
Shaw has hinted that redshirt freshman running back Remound Wright and true freshman cornerback Alex Carter are two options that can provide depth at that spot.
Redshirt senior Daniel Zychlinski returns to his previous role as the holder for Williamson. However, the reins of starting punter will also be handed to him after sitting behind David Green last year. Zychlinski hardly lacks playing experience, having started 10 games in 2010 before losing the job to Green, and averaging over 40 yards per punt in his 31 career boots. His 2010 statistics aren’t meager, either; he placed eight punts inside the 20-yard line and booted a career-long 64-yarder against UCLA.
Backing up Zychlinski is redshirt sophomore Ben Rhyne, a do-it-all specialist who has established his ability in all three components of special teams play: punts, kickoffs and field goals.
“We’re coming along together,” Alamar said. “I think we’ve got a nice combination of veteran special teams players and some young guys that are going to be able to start their careers on the team. I’m looking forward to seeing them in game action.”
Senior punt returner and wideout Drew Terrell has emerged as perhaps the biggest X-factor for the Cardinal after leading the Pac-12 in yards per return last season.
“You find punt returners, you don’t train them,” Shaw said. “Drew catches the ball clean, he’s got great quickness and he feels returns. It’s one thing to tell guys where blocks will happen, but it never happens exactly how you draw it up. He always finds creases, which was the reason why he was the best [punt returner] in the conference last year.”
Terrell’s uncanny punt returning ability came to him at a young age—he was eight years old when he fielded his first punt. He also credits his baseball outfielding experience, as judging fly balls allowed him to develop the necessary hand-eye coordination.
“Punt returning is something that I’ve always had the ability to do and I’ve gradually gotten better and more comfortable with it as the years have gone on,” Terrell explained. “It’s something that I’ve done ever since I started playing football.”
Heralded by Shaw as the team’s “best blocking wide receiver” and praised by Alamar as a “big returner in big games,” the versatile senior has been successfully juggling his special teams duties and wideout responsibilities for the past three years. Yet he continues to hone skills as the always-dangerous playmaker on the field.
“I’ve been doing a lot more individual work,” Terrell said. “Doing various drills, like catching drills that we haven’t really done in the past. [Coach Alamar] is just an energetic and enthusiastic guy about his craft.”
Although Terrell seemed constantly on the verge of breaking one for a touchdown last season—his longest return was 42 yards—he has yet to take it to the house. When asked if he wanted to score one this year, Terrell replied, “Not just one. A few of them.”
Against the likes of USC and Oregon, a few certainly couldn’t hurt.
Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s 2012 football preview series: