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Navy polishes critical kicking game

The Baltimore Sun

Snap. Set the ball. Kick. In 1.2 seconds - or less.

That's the goal of Navy's field-goal unit. This week, getting the job done and done right was the emphasis of special teams practice as the Midshipmen (1-2) head into today's game against visiting Duke (1-2).

The Blue Devils, who broke a 22-game losing streak last week with a 20-14 win at Northwestern, lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in blocked field goals with three.

On most afternoons at Navy, the kickers work on their own. This week, they set up the ball about 6 yards from the crossbar to practice getting the ball higher into the air quicker. At least twice this week, when the kickers joined the rest of the team for a shared practice, defensive linemen were handed brooms and tennis rackets, and waved rackets attached to sticks to emulate defenders jumping to block kicks. The other days, the kickers had to get the kick off in the heat of a real rush.

All of this was brought about by last Saturday's blocked field goal as time ran out in regulation in Navy's 34-31 overtime loss to Ball State.

"We're just trying to screw down the fundamental things," said Jeff Monken, Navy's special teams coordinator. "The snap, the hold, the kicks, everything. Most of the time, you get what you emphasize."

This week, after getting over the sick feeling he had when he saw his kick blocked, Matt Harmon, the starting kicker, was relishing the increased attention to the kicking game. He was welcoming the new practice techniques and even enjoying the increased competition for his job from senior Joey Bullen, who lost the job to Harmon after getting injured last year, and freshman Kyle Delahooke.

Harmon, a junior, will be handling the kickoff duties today against Duke, but head coach Paul Johnson said he would not make a decision on who will handle field goals until game time.

"I wish we did this more often," Harmon said of the increased emphasis on kicking. "I like the brooms and tennis rackets. They make you concentrate more, and not knowing who will start Saturday, that doesn't make me mad. It makes me work and concentrate harder. Competition is good for everyone."

Harmon, 20, had been perfect on field goals and extra points this season until Saturday, when he had two field-goal attempts blocked. A year ago, Harmon missed an extra point in an overtime game against Tulsa that led to a 24-23 loss. It was the last extra point Harmon has missed. He is 10-for-10 this year, and his 43 consecutive extra points have him fourth on Navy's all time list. Until Saturday, he was 5-for-5 this season on field-goal attempts.

But when Harmon missed Saturday's potential game-winner, last year's extra-point miss came quickly to Johnson's mind, and he opened the position to competition.

"Our films have a stopwatch feature which gave us an exact time on how long it took us to get the kick off," Monken said. "It took 1.4 seconds. I know two-tenths of a second doesn't sound like a lot of time - but a lot can happen when everything is swirling around you."

Harmon said he just put his foot in the wrong place.

"Kicking is mostly technique," he said. "Usually, I do the same thing over and over, but that time, my foot might have been too close or too far ahead. I'm supposed to know. I don't really think I felt the pressure. It's just a bad kick that came when it came."

Monken said there is strong competition among the three kickers. Delahooke, who came close to beating senior Greg Veteto for the punting job, has been kicking for the junior varsity team and doing well, while Bullen, who has made big kicks for Navy in the past, is being given every opportunity to earn back the job.

"But I keep shooting myself in the foot," Bullen said. "I didn't help myself. I kicked one left and one right. Up till then, I thought I was doing pretty well."

Bullen, a senior who handled the kicking during his sophomore season and until being injured last year, knows what it's like to lose a job, too. He isn't wishing that on anyone, but he said: "I will feel like I threw away a pretty good opportunity to play, if I don't get the call. This is my last year. I want to play."

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