A good kicking game starts with the hands.
The good hands of long-snapper Ryan King to be more specific.
Both place-kicker Sean Whyte and punter Hugh O’Neill count on King to deliver a perfect strike with a certain amount of spin on the football so they can do their jobs properly.
Of course, backup quarterback Logan Kilgore, who serves as the holder on field goal and convert attempts for Whyte, is also required to be a part of the good hands people, as well.
“As long as we have Logan exactly where we need him from my perspective and from Whytey’s perspective, we’re at 90-95 per cent on perfect laces on all of our kicks,” said King, 33, an eight-year veteran with 106 CFL games under his belt. “That’s what the expectations are on us from the coaching level down – to be as perfect as we can every time we step on the field.
“The distance that we have it set at right now is exactly the distance to have if I have good rotation on the ball,” King continued. “Yeah, the laces will be perfect.
“We don’t often have to have movement on the ball, which helps our kicker. When he’s 45 yards out in the rain and in the wind, he’s got his own stuff to worry about. We like to make it as smooth as we can and have it, so the kicker isn’t looking at any lace on the back of the ball when he’s kicking it. It just improves his chances of making it.”
Obviously, the snap to the punter is different because it has to travel twice as far, but King also has an extremely high success percentage on that skill, too.
“I need to be focused enough to deliver a perfect snap,” he said. “I have about a foot-by-foot box I need to hit every time on punts. And then I have to worry about blocking.
“Punts are definitely a little more challenging, a little more complex (because King is now involved in the middle of the blocking schemes, where “a lot of things can happen at the last second,” instead of racing down the field).
“With practice, you can be really perfect at both of those scenarios,” he added. “It’s something we work on a lot. Repetition is what locks those kinds of things in. A lot of it comes down to muscle memory. We’re pretty robotic in the special teams game and just try to be the exact same week-in and week-out.”
Except for Kilgore, who took over the holder duties after Danny O’Brien was released during training camp, the kicking group has become really tight over the last few years. Whyte, 33, has been with the Eskimos since midway through the 2015 season while O’Neill, 29, finally established himself as a full-time punter last year after bouncing from the BC Lions to Eskimos (three times) to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during the first six years of his eight-year career.
“Some guys find success early, and some guys have to find that right fit and come into their own at the right time,” said O’Neill, who came back to the Eskimos for good in 2017. “I was just trying to find the right place where the right opportunity is, and you can feel comfortable and just do your thing. Definitely, I’ve found it with this role I have here.”
While he said place-kicking was “fun” while he did it, O’Neill loves his current job.
“(Whyte) is an amazing field goal kicker,” he said. “It works well that I can do punts and kickoffs and Ryan long snaps. It’s just a great crew that we can support each other in those three roles.”
Whyte has a success percentage of 91.8 on field goals over his 53 games with the Eskimos. He made 84.2 per cent of his attempts during four seasons with the Montreal Alouettes and only 77.1 per cent during his first two years with the Lions.
Having made all eight convert attempts this season, Whyte has been good on 125 of his 135 point-after kicks from the 32-yard line for a 92.6 success percentage with the Esks.
“It’s experience,” he said about his ridiculously high numbers. “In Montreal, I feel like I faced everything that could be possibly thrown at me. Coming in here now, I don’t stress about those little things that I used to stress about. I take it kick by kick and game by game. I don’t think too far ahead. I stay in the moment, and that’s all I can really do. I just try to focus on the things that I can control.”
Whyte, who needs two points to reach the 500-point mark as an Eskimo and one convert to tie Tom Dixon for fourth place (with 126) on the team’s all-time list, is slowly adjusting to his new holder, Kilgore.
“Logan is a very great athlete, and I trust him with his hands,” Whyte said. “It does take some time to get a nice little rhythm. I had Danny for three years, and I trusted him. He was never anything I had to think about. Obviously, when Logan steps in, it’s hard as a kicker not to think about, ‘Is he going to have the right hold?’ ‘Is he going to mess it up?’ ‘What’s going to happen?’
“But Logan’s been great, he just said: ‘You’ve got to trust me more.’ I know it is a tough thing, but it’ll happen. It just takes a few games.”
King said the Eskimos showed Kilgore, who had experience as a holder in college and for a couple of different kickers with the Toronto Argonauts in 2016, game film of how O’Brien held the ball for Whyte in order to make some minor adjustments.
“Obviously, we want to be working rotation, laces, etc., so we can be as smooth as we can from the snap to the hold to the kick,” King explained.
Kilgore said King makes his job “pretty easy” because the long-snapper is “extremely accurate.”
“His variance is maybe a quarter-turn here, a quarter-turn there,” Kilgore said. “That ball has pretty much hit me in the same place every single time.”
He also said that Whyte has “pretty simple” intricacies as a place-kicker.
“Ball on the tee,” Kilgore said. “If you can get the laces out, that’d be great. If it’s on the tee, he’s going to put it through.”
Whyte missed his only field goal attempt in the season opener but was a perfect three-for-three with four converts for a 13-point game last week against BC.
“That was a tough way to start the year,” Whyte said about his first kick drifting right from 52-1/2 yards. “I had confidence I could have made it, but I missed it.
“The last game was really good for me, confidence-wise. That’s why I was so pumped in the last game just hitting the 45 (yard kick). The 46 into the wind was a big one for me, just confidence-wise and that trust factor. I told (Kilgore) after that, ‘You know, I trust you now, man.’
“Now I’ve got to find that rhythm again,” he stated. “I’m close. I’m not quite comfortable the way I want to be, though.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill is trying to build off the momentum of the first full 18-game regular season of his career by nailing down his consistency.
“It was a pretty solid year for me,” he said. “I put on a little bit of strength this year. I’m trying to get a little more pop on the ball, which seems to be happening so far, but I’ve got to maintain that as the season goes on. That’s the challenge of a long season.”
O’Neill averaged 49.8 yards per punt, including a longest kick of 58 yards, and 53.8 yards per kickoff last week.
When adding weight to his legs and/or building strength, a kicker has to be able to maintain his flexibility “to make sure the leg still flies through the ball the same way,” O’Neill said.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now. Technique is always a big thing, too. Strength’s one thing, but if you have bad technique, it doesn’t matter how strong of a guy you are. I worked a lot this off-season on just trying to be more consistent and getting a smoother stroke on the ball.”
The Eskimos opened the second half last week with a short kickoff, but O’Neill said he didn’t push the ball as are towards the sideline as he wanted.
“The guys made a really good effort to give us a chance on it,” he said. “We want to be aggressive on all the special teams. I’ve got to be better on the next one, for sure. I’ll be ready.”