Understudy takes Terps leading role Kicker: A longtime backup in high school, and with the Terps until two weeks ago, Brian Kopka is now No. 1.

October 08, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Brian Kopka appears ready to kick Maryland's football team through the millennium, but he was prepared to live with the plan to redshirt him this season.

He has experience waiting his turn.

Kopka is the latest rookie revelation for the Terps football team, which can reach .500 for the first time this season with a win over West Virginia on Saturday (1 p.m.) at Byrd Stadium. Maryland's win streak is at two, courtesy of three field goals that Kopka cleanly kicked against Duke.

After junior Brad Rhodes had his second miss in three September field-goal tries, coach Ron Vanderlinden hastened the inevitable. Kopka has taken all of the placement kicks since the second quarter of the Temple win Sept. 27.

"I didn't want to pull the plug after one miss, but after two bad misses, I owed it to Brian and the team to give him a chance," Vanderlinden said. "It was a hard decision, but I didn't think I had an alternative."

It's the first time that Kopka has been No. 1 anywhere, because even when he was pounding a 56-yarder for Hollywood Hills (Fla.) High, he would always be the No. 2 Kopka.

"I probably never would have had the idea to become a kicker if not for my brother Kevin," Kopka said. "I was very reluctant about football as a kid, not into it at all. I never watched the game on television. But just as I was burning out on soccer, Kevin was getting into football. After I saw my brother's success, I felt I could do the same thing."

In his third season at Notre Dame, Kevin Kopka is No. 3 on the depth chart after off-season surgery that removed 90 percent of the cartilage from his right knee. As a freshman, he did the kicking for the Fighting Irish.

That was in 1995, the year Brian finally got his shot on his high school varsity after two seasons on the JV. Brian had followed Kevin up the ladder at Hollywood Hills, outside Fort Lauderdale, and before that he had tagged along to some of Nick Gancitano's private kicking lessons.

Gancitano, who lettered for Penn State in 1982 and '83, is a science teacher, but he has a cottage industry tutoring kickers in South Florida. He was easy to find, because he once taught in the same high school as the Kopkas' mother, whose discipline is foreign languages.

"Nick's been working the boys since Kevin was a freshman in high school," Renee Wallack said. "Kevin always relied on his natural strength, but Brian is the technician."

Brian may be short, but he's not small. Because of the time he put in the weight room, trying to catch up to Kevin, he packs 175 pounds on a 5-foot-8 frame.

Kevin was rated one of the nation's top kicking prospects in 1994, while one recruiting analyst didn't even mention Brian among Florida's top 88 prospects. Along with prep kickers in that state and throughout the nation, Brian was eclipsed last year by Sebastian Janikowski, whose feats are already legend at Florida State.

Kevin left high school with a cumulative GPA of 3.88 and probably would have gone to Stanford if it had offered a scholarship. When No. 1 Florida stopped showing interest, Kopka weighed offers from Colorado State, Missouri and South Florida before becoming the first specialist to sign with Vanderlinden at Maryland.

It was only one game, but against Duke Kopka looked like the most reliable kicker the Terps have had since Dan DeArmas completed his eligibility in 1991.

DeArmas' brother Dave inherited the job in 1992, but transferred to Connecticut after one season. In 1993, Lonnie Calicchio came in as a junior-college All-American but left after the registrar determined that his baggage included a bogus transcript. Joe O'Donnell hit a school-record 80 percent of his field-goal attempts over the past three seasons, but missed a key stretch of 1995 with muscle pulls.

Kopka? Against Duke, he became the first freshman to kick a field goal for Maryland since Dan Plocki in 1985. It was the first time since Dan DeArmas in 1990 that a Terp had three field goals in one game. Since DeArmas' 50-yard field goal in 1991, no Maryland kicker has made a longer attempt than the go-ahead 47-yarder that Kopka converted in the third quarter.

Big deal, according to Kopka.

"When I'm at my best, I don't have time to think about what I'm doing," Kopka said. "You're either a hero or a zero. You've got to train your mind not to dwell on your misses."

Kopka is 18 years old. Wasn't he just a bit nervous in his field-goal kicking debut?

"I got the chance to kick some point-afters against Temple," Kopka said. "That got the freshman jitters out of the way."

So Duke was just like a Friday night under the high school lights in South Florida?

"Yeah," Kopka said. "Come to think of it, it was hot out there."

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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