In my often-futile attempts to drive a golf ball off the tee, usually, the ball sprays right — way right.
After a series of unmentionable whispers by yours truly, as if on cue, one of my golfing cohorts will ask “did you keep your head down?”
Although golf and football are vastly different in many respects, according to Florida kicker Austin Hardin, the two sports do share a commonality as it relates to kicking — it’s always best to keep your head down.
This facet, along with other “tiny mechanical things” is what Hardin has been working on as of late with recently departed all-American kicker Caleb Sturgis. And from the sound of it, his experience has been more pleasant than the golf outings I’ve endured with my smug group of “friends.”
“I’m having fun working with him and I’m learning a lot — as much as I can,” Hardin said of his recent sessions with Sturgis.
“It’s tough to change the different things you’ve been doing for years now, but it’s things that need to be changed that are going to help me in the long run. He’s really just helped me out with a few things here and there. It’s really close, but sometimes it gets frustrating.”
Hardin entered an ideal situation when he arrived in Gainesville. Fresh off an all-American senior season of his own at Atlanta, Ga.’s Marist School, Hardin came to UF as the presumed understudy to Sturgis. For a year, Hardin would be able to learn from arguably the nation’s best kicker, only to take the job this season once Sturgis took his golden leg to the NFL.
However, after what Hardin described as a “good” fall camp, a hamstring injury during the second week of the season relegated him to the sidelines for nearly the rest of the year, perhaps delaying his progress.
“It was tough going down with that injury,” Hardin said. “I had never really been injured and it kind of came out of nowhere, it was the first time I had to deal with a very lengthy injury.
“It was tough at first, but I think I really was able to bounce back from it and just sit back and have a year to prepare and watch what Caleb has to go through, what I’m going to have to be going through. Coming back from it, I just had to start working even harder, and rehabbing it. I feel like I’m at a 100 percent now and it should be no problem.”
Hardin resumed kicking the week of the Gators’ regular season finale against Florida State, allowing him to practice throughout the bowl season as well.
With Hardin sitting out, Gainesville native Brad Phillips assumed the backup role to Sturgis, seeing action in the Missouri game with three kickoffs and a field goal attempt.
With Sturgis having exhausted his eligibility, Florida’s kicking competition has been deemed wide open. But according to Hardin, having another talented kicker like Phillips on the roster is driving him to compete harder.
“I’ve always been an extremely competitive based type person,” Hardin said. “I’m always best when I’m under pressure and when people are really pushing me to do the best. Brad’s a great kicker too, so it really helps to bring the best in both of us.”
No matter who gets the job however, Florida’s next kicker will undoubtedly welcome in a heap of pressure. Sturgis leaves UF as the school’s all-time leader in made field goals as well as kicks of 50 yards or more.
Hardin is aware of the expectations, but he’s not worried about fitting into the shoes left behind Sturgis — he’s only worried about himself.
“He was Caleb, I’m Austin,” Hardin said. “I’m a completely different person and a different kicker and I have my own path set for me. There’s some pressure to live up to his expectations, but when it all comes down to it, I have to do what I’m going to do and I’m going to work towards those expectations.”
While Florida fans will certainly have their own expectations, albeit, slightly tempered, Hardin’s coach has some of his own as well. Will Muschamp has gone on record of saying the Gators have a ways to go at the kicking spot after only a few spring sessions. However, Hardin uses his coach’s words simply as motivation.
“Obviously, I don’t want there to be any drop-off between what we’ve had here for the past couple of years going to me … I’ve got a big four months in front me, just to work as hard as I can to get as consistent as possible and really get comfortable with the holders and snappers, and get it down.
“Stuff like that just pushes me and motivates me. And [Muschamp’s] right — keep working, keep getting more consistent.”
Muschamp said often last season that Sturgis’ leg gave the Gators’ offense an insurance policy. With a young group still learning on the fly, Florida’s coaching staff knew that as long as the offense could cross midfield, the Gators still had a chance to put points on the board.
Naturally, with two inexperienced kickers on the roster, some would expect the coaching staff’s philosophy to undergo a shift.
However, Hardin was quick to dispel that early notion, saying both he and Phillips are capable of providing the Florida offense with the same security blanket Sturgis did.
“I don’t think it should affect that much because me and Brad both have plenty of leg strength to make the same types of kicks,” Hardin said. Right now, it’s just getting down to doing it as often as [Sturgis] did.
“I think that’s something we still have to prove though, is that they can make the same calls and do that type of stuff because we can be reliable.”