Maryland kicker Joseph Petrino looks forward to the moment when a game comes down to his powerful right foot. It nearly happened last season, against Ohio State, but in the end the Terps decided to go for a two-point conversion rather than send the game into a second overtime.
After the play failed and Maryland lost, 52-51, Petrino thought back to his first missed field-goal attempt of the season — after making 11 in a row. It had come in the second quarter, after the Terps had stormed to an early 17-3 lead over the No. 10, heavily favored Buckeyes.
“I tried not to get in my head because I knew it was a longer kick,” Petrino said of the 49-yard attempt. “I knew I had to miss at one point. I wanted to try to have a perfect season, but I wasn’t too upset I missed because I knew it was going to happen."
A couple of hours later, after the game, Petrino was thinking about the miss again.
“When we lost by a point, that was hard for me to deal with at first,” he recalled after practice Monday. "But it was early in the game, it wasn’t a game-winner. That helped me a little bit.”
As it turned out, Petrino was the last full-time Division I kicker (Football Bowl Subdivision or Football Championship Subdivision) to see his pursuit for perfection end. He finished the year 12-for-14 overall, as well as 40-for-41 on extra points, including three separate games in which he made all six PATs. His nine extra points in a blowout win over Illinois tied a school record.
For much of Petrino’s first season, interim coach Matt Canada and special teams coach Matt Barnes seemed to try to build the freshman’s confidence by limiting most of his attempts from the 40-yard line and in. Starting with his performance against No. 23 Texas in the season opener, when he made both of his field-goal attempts and all six of his extra points in a 34-29 win, Petrino’s confidence grew.
Petrino’s longest field goal was in the team’s second game, at Bowling Green. Playing most of the game in a steady downpour, Petrino made a 40-yarder right before halftime that seemed to give the Terps, who were struggling on offense, a lift. It cut a 14-7 deficit to 14-10 in a game eventually won by Maryland in a runaway, 45-14.
“I remember when I was going into the Texas game last year, luckily my first kick it was an extra point, but I was very nervous,” recalled Petrino, the first freshman kicker to start since Brad Craddock in 2012. “At first I wanted to get the hang of it when I first started. I didn’t want my first kick to be a very long one.
“I did like how they let me get into the groove of things. Now I want to get some longer attempts this season.”
That appears to be part of first-year coach Mike Locksley’s plan in how he and special teams coordinator John Papuchis will use Petrino. Last Friday’s practice ended with Petrino called on to make a 50-yard “game winner” as time was about to expire on the scoreboard.
According to Locksley, Petrino had no trouble from that distance or in that situation.
“I feel like he’s really hitting it well,” Locksley said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “Really consistent. Really confident, which is always a plus with kickers, having that confidence up there. Just seeing him kick it today, seeing some of the situations we put him in today, and seeing him execute, it’s good to see.”
Those who have watched Petrino’s progression from a striker in soccer who could score with both feet to a high school kicker who routinely hit 60-yarders in pregame warmups — and once, on a lark, made a 60-yarder with his right foot and a 50-yarder with his left in practice — are not surprised by his early success on the college level.
“What he did last year as a freshman was mind-blowing,” said Patrick Means, who has coached Petrino since the spring before his freshman year at Richmond Hill [Ga.] High, near Savannah. “Being the last kicker to miss a field goal in Division I doesn’t happen [to freshmen]. That’s his personality. He’s just even-keeled, goes about it and does his job, and does it with a big smile on his face. Starting football later helped him a ton because he doesn’t understand that he’s under pressure when he is.”
Petrino’s father, John, who played soccer at Rutgers in the late 1970s, said that his now 19-year-old son has always had a calmness about him, on and off the field.
“The term the kids use now that we didn’t use is ‘chill’, he’s a pretty chill kid, and that’s how I would describe him,” the elder Petrino said Tuesday. “Unflappable. If something doesn’t go right, he doesn’t linger.”
Means discovered Petrino while coaching one of Petrino’s older sisters, Anna. At the time, Petrino was only playing soccer.
“She was a stud, and I asked her, ‘Is your little brother’s leg stronger than yours?’ and she said, ‘He’s ridiculous, it’s actually stronger,' " Means said. "That’s when I went to Joseph and told him I wanted him to start kicking.”
Means said that most soccer players who convert to field-goal kicking are defenders who are used to kicking balls more for height and distance than for accuracy or with touch, as strikers do.
“He was different than a lot of kickers. He never had the issue of going in between the two sports,” Means said. “He really understands his body very well. He able to say, ‘This is my soccer kick, I’m staying over the ball,’ and this is my field goal. It was never an issue for him to transition.”
Means, who was a kicker in college at Mississippi after his own high school soccer career ended, said that Petrino’s lack of familiarity with football until he started kicking helped in his development.
“Joseph really never understood football,” Means said Tuesday. “He just started kicking and didn’t realize there were a bunch of pressure situations that so many people are watching you. I actually look at it being a huge advantage, because he didn’t quite understand how big a deal it really was.”
To date, most of the attention Petrino has received came one day at high school football practice when a friend shot video of him kicking a 60-yarder with his right foot and then a 50-yarder with his left. After Petrino posted the video on Twitter, “all of a sudden it just blew up.”
The kicks made the Top 10 plays on ESPN’s “SportsCenter”.
Means said that Petrino did it more to help prevent the lower back issues that often hamper kickers because of the way they twist their lower torso before attempts.
“For him, it was always, ‘Kick right-footed and then go out there and play around and just kick some left, so you’re counteracting your lower back and it’s not going to hurt you,” Means said. “It’s more a body maintenance things. He got better and better at it.”
That isn’t in the plans at Maryland, but Petrino is looking forward to getting a chance at kicking longer field-goal attempts, perhaps even a game-winner.
“With a season behind me, I feel a lot more comfortable,” Petrino said.
Backup sophomore linebacker Durell Nchami tore an ACL and will miss the season, according to Locksley. The Paint Branch graduate appeared in 10 games last season as a freshman, recording 15 tackles. He had a sack and a blocked kick against Penn State.