Panther kickers battling it out
By Steve Reed
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The Carolina Panthers will enter the preseason with their kicker and punter positions both up in the air.
That’s an oddity around here.
For the better part of 18 years the Panthers have enjoyed incredible stability with kicker John Kasay and punters Jason Baker and Todd Sauerbrun.
But competition abounds at both spots this summer.
Veteran kicker Olindo Mare, who missed a pair of costly late-game field goal attempts last season, is trying to fend off former CFL kicker Justin Medlock to keep his job. And in the battle for the team’s vacant punting spot, rookie Brad Nortman, the team’s sixth-round draft pick, is hoping to beat out 12-year NFL veteran Nick Harris.
Ron Rivera acknowledges it’s a little unsettling for a head coach to not know who his kickers will be at this point in the year, but said the competition so far has been excellent at both positions.
Rivera said the team is charting everything at training camp — from warm-up kicks to actual performance during practice. He said both kickers are right around 90 percent with their field goal accuracy, while the punters are booming the ball an average of around 45 yards with good hang time.
“Right now it’s a heck of a competition with the kickers and punters, so we’re excited about it,” Rivera said.
The Panthers signed Mare to a four-year, $12 million deal last offseason to replace Kasay, who’d been the franchise’s kicker since they began play in 1995. The move was made in part because Mare had a stronger leg on kickoffs and the Panthers didn’t want to carry two kickers.
Mare was fine on kickoffs last season but struggled on field goals, converting just 78.6 percent (22 of 28).
He came in with an already difficult task of replacing Kasay and didn’t exactly endear himself to fans when he missed a pair of last-minute chip shot field goals at home — a 31-yarder against Minnesota and from 36 yards vs. Atlanta.
Those misses have raised some questions about his job security.
Overall, Mare said he thought he had “a pretty good year” that would have been better had it not been for three blocked kicks — two on field goals and one an extra point.
“When you get two or three in a row blocked you have to speed up and do different things,” Mare said. “I did that and it didn’t work. And I cost us the game on one of them by trying to fix it by myself. You live and learn. Hopefully you learn from those mistakes and trust what you do.”
Medlock, 29, hopes to unseat Mare and claim his first NFL job.
Despite being selected in the fifth round by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007, he’s never been able to land a full-time NFL role and has only attempted two field goals. He eventually wound up in Canada and last season connected on 49 of 55 field goal attempts for the Hamilton Tiger Cats.
“This is my last rodeo as far as giving the NFL a shot,” Medlock said. “Obviously I want to win the job but I may not be able to control that aspect of it.”
Mare knows he’s in for a battle.
“I don’t know what coach isn’t looking for younger, better and stronger,” Mare said. “But having made (350) career field goals is worth something I hope. And to be able to kick it out of the end zone against guys like Devin Hester is a plus.”
As for the punting competition, Harris believes it may come down to what style of punter the Panthers prefer.
“Brad and I are two different punters,” said Harris, who punted last season for Jacksonville after spending eight seasons with the Detroit Lions. “I’m more of a directional punter, hitting spots on the field and he’s a boomer. He’s a stretch-the-field guy. It comes down to what the team wants to do in terms of punt coverage.”
Rivera believes both competitions are too close to call.
The Panthers have an interesting game plan for the kickers during the preseason. Rivera said the idea is to keep them in the dark as to who’ll be kicking at any given moment during the game. That way everyone has to be ready at all times.
Rivera hopes that puts added emphasis — and pressure — on every kick.
“They have to prepare as if they’re going to be the ones who kick,” Rivera said. “We want to make sure their minds are right. They are all pressure kicks and they have to pay attention and be ready to go.”