SEC Report: Leach still in search of kicker

By: Bob Holt
Published: Thursday, November 11, 2021
Mississippi State coach Mike Leach is shown during a game against Arkansas on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Fayetteville.
( David Beach/Special to the Democrat-Gazette )
Mississippi State coach Mike Leach is shown during a game against Arkansas on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Fayetteville.

Mississippi State Coach Mike Leach said being a college placekicker isn’t complicated.

“The thing is, there’s a ball, and you kick it, and it really doesn’t matter if a bunch of 7-year-olds are watching or if five million Mongol warriors on horses getting ready to shoot their bows and arrows at you,” Leach said Monday at his weekly press conference. “Because, I mean, you approach the ball and kick it.

“It’s as simple as that.”

Despite what Leach said, he knows it’s not easy for kickers to make field goals even at the SEC level, as the Bulldogs demonstrated last week in their 31-28 loss at Arkansas.

Bob Holt's SEC Rankings

1 Georgia (9-0)

2 Alabama (8-1)

3 Texas A&M (7-2)

4 Ole Miss (7-2)

5 Auburn (6-3)

6 Arkansas (6-3)

7 Mississippi State (5-4)

8 Tennessee (5-4)

9 Kentucky (6-3)

10 LSU (4-5)

11 South Carolina (5-4)

12 Florida (4-5)

13 Missouri (4-5)

14 Vanderbilt (2-7)

Mississippi State kickers Brandon Ruiz and Nolan McCord combined to go 0 of 3 on field goal attempts.

Ruiz, senior transfer from Arizona State, missed from 23 and 46 yards.

Leach then had McCord, a redshirt freshman, attempt two extra points, and he hit both.

McCord then missed a 40-yard field goal attempt on the final play that allowed the Razorbacks to hold on for the victory rather than have to play overtime.

The misses dropped Mississippi State to 9 of 17 on field goal attempts this season, including 1 of 7 from beyond 40 yards.

After the game, Leach said the Bulldogs would hold open tryouts for kickers back on campus, and it wasn’t something said only in frustration after a tough loss.

Leach said Wednesday that about 40 students expressed interest in trying out to be Mississippi State’s kicker.

The hopeful kickers haven’t yet gone through tryouts, Leach said, because paperwork needs to be finalized to make sure they’re all academically eligible under NCAA rules.

“We’ve got to get their paperwork and all that stuff,” Leach said. “They have to be approved.

“We haven’t seen any of them [kick] yet. I’m sure they’ll come in all shapes and sizes.”

Leach said he hopes to hold tryouts next week.

“We want to have a pile of kickers that are available that we cultivate, develop,” Leach said. “Over the years, most of my kickers have been walk-on guys that have developed and improved to the point where they become the starting kicker.”

Ruiz came to Mississippi State as a scholarship kicker last season, when he hit 10 of 12 field goal attempts with a long of 43 yards. This season he’s 5 of 9 this season with a long of 44.

McCord is 4 of 8 on field goal attempts with a long of 39.

Leach said a decision will be made later this week who will handle field goals against Auburn on Saturday, but it sounds like it will be Ruiz or McCord with the tryouts for new candidates still on hold.

“You just keep working,” Leach said of what can be done to improve the kicking. “Go back to square one as far as the drills.”

Florida firings

Florida Coach Dan Mullen fired two assistant coaches — defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive line coach John Hevesy — after the Gators dropped to 4-5 with a 40-17 loss at South Carolina.

Grantham was in his fifth season as Mullen’s defensive coordinator, first at Mississippi State, then at Florida. Hevesy was in his 13th season as an assistant for Mullen.

“I’m a pretty loyal person,” Mullen said. “I’m not going to jump to any conclusion. The first sign of trouble, I’m not going to abandon ship on anything. I’m going to look at everything. Honestly, probably a knock sometimes.”

Mullen said he has tremendous respect for Grantham and Hevesy, but that he felt now was the time to make changes on his staff, especially with the early signing period in December.

“Those guys are both friends of mine,” Mullen said. “But my responsibility as the head coach is to do what I feel is best for the Florida Gators, and that comes above it all.

“I think Todd’s an excellent, excellent football coach and there’s times that we’ve played great defense. We just haven’t done it consistently.

“We’re one of the top rushing teams in the country — we just haven’t been consistent with John and the offensive line.”

Linebackers coach Christian Robinson, who played for Grantham at Georgia, never has called plays, but he’ll begin doing that for Saturday’s game against Samford.

Graduate assistant Mike Sollenne will coach the offensive line.

“It’s a great opportunity for Christian Robinson, a really good young coach, to go call a game for the first time,” Mullen said. “Mike Sollenne gets an opportunity. I think he’s a good young coach working with guys. Great opportunity for him on the O-line, and I’m going to spend a lot of time with him and the O-line to make sure we’re getting the work done we need there.”

Mullen previously has hired six defensive coordinators, but he’s replacing an offensive line coach for the first time.

“This is Florida,” he said. “So there’s a long list of people that want any job they can get at the University of Florida in any aspect.”

Crazy timing

Hurry-up offenses have made time of possession a less important statistic than in the past when ball control ruled the game, but the time of possession breakdown in Tennessee’s 45-42 victory at Kentucky still defied logic.

The Vols won despite having possession for 13 minutes and 52 seconds compared to 46:08 for the Wildcats.

Kentucky ran 99 plays to 47 for Tennessee.

“I’ve never been a part of a game with that little time of possession and the success that we had,” Vols Coach Josh Heupel said. “It was just unique the way the game unfolded.”

Tennessee scored on the game’s first offensive play when Hendon Hooker hit JaVonta Payton on a 75-yard touchdown pass.

The Vols also scored on a 37-yard run and 56-yard interception return.

“Even in today’s football that’s definitely a rare occurrence,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said of his team controlling the ball for more than 46 minutes and losing. “I think when you’re playing a team like an Ole Miss or Tennessee, time of possession is not that big of a factor if you’re not getting stops.

“We certainly gave up way too many explosive plays.”

Alabama streak ends

The longest streak ever for a college football team to score 30 or more points ended at 34 games when Alabama beat LSU 20-14.

It was the first time the Crimson Tide failed to score at least 30 points since they lost to Clemson 44-16 in the College Football Playoff championship game on Jan. 7, 2019.

Big 0 for the offense

Neither team scored an offensive touchdown in Texas A&M’s 20-3 victory over Auburn.

Aggies defensive end Michael Clemons scored the game’s only touchdown on a 24-yard fumble return.

Auburn was held to its fewest points since being shut out by Alabama 49-0 in 2012.

Attention getter

South Carolina Coach Shane Beamer said the Gamecocks’ 40-17 victory over Florida had an immediate impact on recruiting.

“A lot of prospects that weren’t at the game, I had text messages from right afterwards,” Beamer said. “And then frankly, some guys early in the season that I couldn’t get them to return a text, or answer a phone call … some of those guys are showing some interest.”

Player to Watch: QB Hendon Hooker, Tennessee

Hooker, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, is providing the Vols with their best play at quarterback since 2016 when Josh Dobbs was leading the offense.

Hooker was the SEC offensive player of the week last week when he completed 15 of 20 passes for 316 yards and added 41 rushing yards to lead Tennessee to a 45-42 victory at Kentucky.

It’s unlikely Hooker — or any other quarterback — can play well enough against Georgia’s dominating defense to pull an upset, but he gives the Vols a fighting chance for Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium.

On the season Hocker has completed 129 of 186 passes (69.4%) for 1,894 yards and 21 touchdowns with 2 interceptions.

Four of Hooker’s touchdown passes have gone for 70 or more yards.

Game of the Week: No. 11 Texas A&M (-3) at No. 15 Ole Miss, Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN

The Aggies and Rebels will play for the first time since Texas A&M beat Ole Miss 24-17 in 2019 after last season’s matchup was postponed twice because of covid-19 outbreaks and eventually cancelled.

Texas A&M is looking to extend its winning streak to five games and stay within striking distance of Alabama in the SEC West race.

Because the Aggies beat Alabama, they can still win the SEC West title if they win out and Alabama loses one of its remaining SEC games at home against Arkansas or at Auburn.

The Rebels last beat the Aggies on the field 29-28 in 2016. Ole Miss later vacated the victory because of NCAA sanctions.

By the Numbers

51 1/2 — Points Alabama is favored by against New Mexico State.

1,030 — Rushing yards for Missouri senior Tyler Badie. He’s the SEC’s first 1,000-yard rusher this season and the 15th Tiger to do it in a combined 18 seasons.

0.56 — Sacks allowed per game average by Georgia. The Bulldogs’ opponents have 5 sacks in 9 games.

5 — SEC West teams in this week’s College Football Playoff poll

Overheard

“It’s nice to do a halftime interview when we’re winning. I haven’t done one of those in a while.”

South Carolina Coach Shane Beamer to SEC Network reporter Alyssa Lang with the Gamecocks leading 30-10 in what became a 40-17 victory over Florida.

“I don’t even know why I turn in plays anymore. It certainly doesn’t matter. I don’t think I will from now on.”

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops when asked on the SEC coaches’ teleconference if had turned any video of plays involving questionable officiating calls to the conference office.

“I think New Mexico State is a dangerous team because they’re one of these teams that are going to pass the ball.”

Alabama Coach Nick Saban on the 1-8 Aggies, who are 23rd nationally in pass offense at 278.4 per game.

“He grew up a competitor down in South Georgia, and he’s kind of been overcoming the odds I feel like for his whole career. He’s played with a chip on his shoulder.”

Georgia Coach Kirby Smart on QB Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on.

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