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Kickers foot the responsibility

Kaneland kicker Matt Rodriguez practices at the school.
Kaneland kicker Matt Rodriguez practices at the school.

Kaneland senior Matt Rodriguez added punting to his arsenal last season, and of course, it added up.

The Knights were already accustomed to seeing Rodriguez boom field goals and kickoffs.

“I almost think it hurts us sometimes when he doesn’t kick a touchback,” senior linebacker Gary Koehring said. “Because we’re like, ‘What are we supposed to do? We actually have to tackle this guy now.’ ”

When it comes to the high school kicking game, taking anything but uncertainty and frayed nerves for granted is rare. It’s ice work no matter how you get it, but the facts are these:

Rodriguez banged a 63-yard field goal during a 2011 practice and is getting interest from major college programs. In many other camps, his counterparts either volunteered or shuttled over from the school’s soccer team.

Although the IHSA allows 25 days of offseason contact, coaches seldom allot much, if any, attention to special teams during those sessions, citing too much of a time crunch.

Many programs treat the kicking game like the lottery. If they have something in hand, terrific. If not, there’s always next time.

“Back in the day, kids would go outside and kids would kick. We all kicked over the clothesline,” said Marmion coach Dan Thorpe, who coached in Wisconsin and Ohio from 1987 to 2004 before arriving in Aurora the following season.

“First off, we don’t have clotheslines anymore, and second of all, kids don’t go outside and kick over the fence or the garage. A lot of them like to stay inside with video games. That’s the way it is. That’s part of it.”

In Geneva, life often imitates art – or at least Electronic Arts, developer of the popular Madden video game franchise – when it comes to certain elements of special teams. Veteran coach Rob Wicinski would love to make like most gamers and never punt on fourth down, but ultimately knows logic (and some of the more conservative Vikings fans) guard against a tactic he favored after reading a book on field position years ago.

If you ever wondered why former Geneva quarterback Matt Williams often scrambled to find a nonexistent completion before a pooch punt – Daniel Santacaterina gets the call this season – it’s because Wicinski has data. And, come to think of it, perspective from when a former conference opponent used a similar approach.

“I’m kind of going more in with the mentality of four downs. Back to Rochelle. Four-down territory,” Wicinski said. “I just remember what kind of stress it put on our defense. We didn’t like that, you know. You play tough for three downs, it’s 4th-and-3 and they’re going on their own 30. And they get it, and it’s just a grind on the defense. So that’s kind of where that’s developing, but whether I’ve got the guts to continue on, we’ll see.”

Kaneland still opposes Rochelle in the Northern Illinois Big 12 East, but has not exactly needed any late Rodriguez chip shots against the Hubs, winning the teams’ three regular-season meetings by an average of 25.3 points since the league’s 2010 debut.

Knights coach Tom Fedderly doesn’t look to put Rodriguez at any other position, although he does run Rodriguez through conditoning and other end-of-workout “perfect practice” team drills like everyone else.

At Aurora Christian, coach Don Beebe – a Kaneland alumnus – plans to put strong-footed kicker Trevor Hills to work as a starting outside linebacker and occasional receiver. Hills’ impact, however, begins with his foot. Touchbacks are his specialty, too.

“When you can force a team like St. Francis or Montini, someone like that, to start from the 20, that’s huge,” Beebe said.

As Rodriguez takes aim on his final high school season, the Knights appreciate his security blanket behind a vaunted spread offense and beefy, experienced lines on both sides of the ball.

“He’s going to have some unbelievable opportunities, I think, when it’s all said and done if he can maintain his grades throughout this year,” Fedderly said.

Other programs would welcome that reliability with open arms. Think two people locking hands to make uprights. 

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