Extra dose of confidence puts Terps' Novak in groove

Sophomore kicker tries not to be perfect, reduces errors to become a force

College Football

October 15, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland kicker Nick Novak remembered how fear and worry used to color his approach to the game.

A year ago, when he was part of what amounted to an open tryout for half of the season, Novak often tried to be too fine, too perfect. And at the end of a typical game, he typically would make enough mistakes to get an earful from his coaches.

As a sophomore specialist, Novak has grown physically, gained strength mentally and is at peace with his plentiful ability.

This is what happens after a second-year freshman stares down pressure like a veteran. That's what Novak did a year ago, when he kicked a 46-yard field goal on national television to force an overtime period, during which Maryland upset Georgia Tech to start a midseason stretch run that ended with the Terps as Atlantic Coast Conference champions and Orange Bowl participants.

Midway through the 2002 season, as the Terps (4-2, 0-1) await an ACC rematch with the visiting Yellow Jackets, Novak has matured into a performer short on miscues and long on confidence -- not to mention distance. Witness his booming, 46-yard field goal during Oct. 5's 48-17 rout at West Virginia. It was a wind-aided kick that sailed high over the crossbar and probably would have been good from 60 yards.

"Last year, I was kicking the ball safely. I was afraid to miss," Novak said. "This year, I'm kicking the ball strong and it's going straight, because I'm kicking without any doubts. I'm not hoping the thing is going to go through [the uprights]. Now, there's no reason to doubt myself."

There no longer is a reason for Maryland to question one of its most potent weapons.

Novak, who has teamed with punter Brooks Barnard and return man Steve Suter to give the Terps a dangerous special teams unit, has converted 10 of 13 field-goal attempts this year. One was blocked, and the other two misses were from beyond 50 yards, including a 57-yarder that fell just short against Wofford in a 37-8 victory.

Sixteen of Novak's 39 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks. He even has recorded two tackles -- takedowns, not pushes out of bounds -- in kickoff coverage. Dating to last year, he has converted 55 consecutive extra-point kicks. And beginning with his heroics against Georgia Tech last October, Novak has missed only five of his past 27 field-goal attempts.

"It's all about rhythm," said Barnard, a former high school place-kicker who is Novak's holder. "Once you get into one, it doesn't matter what you do. You get breaks. You get lucky when you need to. Nick has taken off.

"I know the sound [of foot striking ball] when you're kicking well. It's a thump. There's a difference between a thump and a slap. When you thump it, it's gone."

Terps special teams coach Ray Rychleski has grown accustomed to hearing that same sound.

"Nick has got the perfect hit going, like a golf swing. Consistency is what we're looking for. That's what he's giving us right now. He's a big part of this team," Rychleski said.

"What I like is Nick has a good head on his shoulders. He's over 3.0 [GPA] in the classroom, and he works at his craft. I've got to yell at him once in a while to keep him in line, but he makes my job easier. I get involved when something is wrong. Right now, nothing is wrong. We're just going about our business."

In other words, the timing between Barnard, Novak and long snapper Jon Condo is bordering on impeccable. And the confidence that sprouted for Novak with that pressure kick last year -- after that, Novak took over the job from senior Vedad Siljkovic -- has mushroomed.

"During warm-ups [before the West Virginia game], I asked Nick about his [field-goal] limits," coach Ralph Friedgen said. "He said 35 yards if it's into the wind, and with the wind, there is no limit. He's made 58-yarders in practice."

"It's like a total flip side, going into games this year. It's due to the experience that came with making that kick last year," said Novak, the son of two college professors. He was born in San Diego, graduated from Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va., and picked Maryland over Virginia. His mother and father, Julie and Bob, teach at Purdue.

"You either make it or you miss it. There's no in-between," he added. "If I miss, I get the brunt of the blame. I'll take the blame. But right now, everyone is doing their job. It's like clockwork."

With 1.67 field goals per game, Novak ranks 12th in the nation. With seven games remaining in the regular season, he stands a good chance of breaking the single-season record of 17 field goals, shared by Dale Castro (1979), Jess Atkinson (1984) and Dan Plocki (1988).

Rychleski is eager to see how, if the game dictates it, Novak responds to more pressure in another important game with Georgia Tech on a national stage.

"More important than anything, that kick last year gave [Novak] the confidence to make the next kick, and now he is a real solid kicker," Rychleski said. "This game is going to be on ESPN again. Lee Corso is going to be making a big deal about the kick. That's fine, but it's only one game, and there still is only one step from the penthouse to the outhouse. I think Nick understands that."

NOTE: Right tackle Matt Crawford (illness) has missed practice the past two days and is questionable for Georgia Tech.

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