Struggling OU kicker Zach Schmit knows highs, lows and how to navigate both

Struggling OU kicker Zach Schmit knows highs, lows and how to navigate both

The Sooners head to Kansas with questions surrounding kicker Zach Schmit, who navigates his second rough patch in two seasons.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 27, 2023, 7:30am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 27, 2023, 7:30am CDT

NORMAN — Field goal kicking is a zero-sum game. Zach Schmit is critically aware of that.

That’s worth remembering as Oklahoma’s second-year kicker heads to Kansas Saturday in the midst of a midseason swoon.

After missed kicks against Iowa State and Texas, Schmit sent two of his three field goal attempts wide in the Sooners’ narrow, 31-29 win over UCF last Saturday.

All told, he’s turned in four misses on his last nine field goal tries with only one make over 40 yards.

With Schmit mired in what Brent Venables termed a “rough patch” and under the unique pressure that finds all struggling kickers, it’s also worth returning to the perspective the Bishop McGuiness grad offered from the OU practice fields on a steamy afternoon two months ago.

“As a kicker, you can get through highs and you can go through lows,” Schmit said in late August. “For me, last year, I went through the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows. I’ve been able to experience all of it. Now, going into this year, I know what it feels like.”

Venables is standing by his kicker. Following the Week 8 win, the Sooners coach pointed to Schmit’s consistent practice performance and broader track record.

“There’s gonna be more tight games,” Venables said. “I’ve got confidence that he’ll make them at the right time.”

Venables on Saturday shot down any suggestion of making a change in the kicking game. This week, when asked if Schmit’s current form could lead to a more aggressive decision-making approach on fourth down, Venables stuck with his message.

“I believe and have confidence in him,” Venables said. “But we got to be better. That goes without saying.”

There is fair concern around Schmit’s recent kicking form as the Sooners prepare to chase postseason contention.

He ranks 11th among Big 12 kickers converting on 69.2% (9-for-13) of his field goal attempts in 2023. Interestingly, that mark outpaces the 66.7 hit rate Schmit recorded in his first season as a starter last fall.

It can also be noted that Schmit lags behind nearly every OU kicker of the last 25 years.

With a career field goal conversion rate of 68.8%, Schmit trails well behind predecessors like Michael Hunnicutt (83.3%, 2011-14), Gabe Brkic (82.6%, 2018-21), Garrett Hartley (81%, 2004-07), Jimmy Stevens (80.8%, 2008-11) and Austin Seibert (79.7, 2015-18). Among Sooners place kickers since the 1999 season, Schmit ranks ahead of only 2000 national champion Tim Duncan on career conversion percentage (66.7%, 1999-2001).

Behind him on the depth chart are redshirt freshman Gavin Marshall and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M transfer Redi Mustafaraj. Neither has attempted a Division I field goal. Additionally, Venables seemed to suggest this week that health is a factor at the position, too.

“We don’t have great depth there, Venables. “We had some guys banged up, as well.”

All signs point to Schmit maintaining field-goal duties. As things stand, he’ll be the one standing over whatever crucial kicks lie between the Sooners and their Big 12 title and College Football Playoff aspirations.

For those reasons, it’s worth understanding how Schmit approaches one of the most high-stress, individual jobs in Norman.

“It’s really just a mental game of me telling myself to forget about the last one,” he said prior to this season. “Every kick is independent from another. It does not matter.”

‘I’ve just got to be ready’

Schmit can say he knows both highs and lows because the fall of 2022 is only so distant in Schmit’s mind.

The former five-star kicker spent the first two seasons backing up Brkic. The kickers grew close. Schmit traveled over the summer to visit Brkic at a kicking camp in Tennessee.

“I grew up with him,” Schmit said. “When I was a freshman and I was young, that was the guy I looked up to and followed.”

Schmit made each of his initial eight kicks last fall, flawless through the Sooners’ first seven games. Game No. 7 was the Sooners’ visit to Iowa State. Schmit not only knocked in two field goals that afternoon, but scored his first career touchdown on a fake field goal in the second quarter of a 27-13 win.

What do those days feel like in the life of a college kicker?

“You are on cloud nine,” Schmit said. “You are having the best time of your life.”

Moments like that, at the sport’s loneliest position, are fleeting.

“When the next games come along and you don’t do as well? That’s when you are at the lowest point and you feel like you are at rock bottom,” Schmit explained.

Schmit’s season peaked in Ames.

He missed his first kick of the season from 55 yards in a 38-35 loss to Baylor.

Two more kicks went the wrong way the next weekend in a 23-20 defeat to West Virginia that proved to be a back breaker for the 2022 Sooners. Schmit’s narrow overtime miss was part of the story in a 51-48 loss at Texas Tech in a crushing regular season finale and he sent another kick wide in the Cheez-It Bowl.

In the end, Schmit missed five of his last nine attempts in 2022.

“West Virginia was really tough on me,” he said. “Texas Tech was also fairly tough. Those were the two lows.”

Schmit, however, says he’s grateful for the offseason introspection those experiences guided him through. As he faces a similar rough patch in 2023, Schmit is approaching his mental side of the job entirely differently than he did a year ago.

Here’s how Schmit, speaking in August, explained what his in-game routine looked like in 2022:

“I’d make the kick, I’d get my tee for kickoff, kick the touchback and now you’re on the sideline and you are mentally shut off because the defense is on. Now the offense is up and they are driving, so I’m going to kick into the net twice.”

As for how he planned to attack 2023: 

“I’m going to visualize myself kicking on the field. Now, for me, it’s better for me to see that. OK, hey, as I’ve grown, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done – make or miss – the next kick is coming. The offense needs me for that next kick. So I’ve just got to be ready.”

Perhaps it’s that mental routine Schmit is focusing on as he works to regain his footing in the kicking game. Or perhaps he’s leaning one of his closest former teammates for support, too. 

Schmit says he talks to Brkic four or five times a month. Sometimes, he texts just to check in. Other times, he’ll reach out seeking needed guidance on the craft. 

“If I ever have questions — physical things, mental things — about how he does it, I’ll always text him,” Schmit said.

Short memory

One key difference from last fall: the teammates Schmit is working most closely with.

He developed tight relationships with long snapper Kasey Kelleher and holder Michael Turk in 2022. This fall, Schmit is working in a new unit with Ben Anderson snapping and John Plaster as his holder. The trio spent the offseason solidifying their connection.

We were able to get a great cohesion and built a great chemistry during the summer,” Schmit said. “It kind of all clicked.”

Like he did a year ago, Schmit opened 2023 on a perfect run of four makes from four field goal attempts through four games before his recent dip. Venables hopes the kicker the Sooners saw in the early part of the season is the one OU will have back the rest of the way.

Luke Elzinga and the rest of Schmit’s fellow special teamers are working on it.

Through OU’s recent kicking game struggles, the Sooners’ punter has observed Schmit in his typically good mood and converting on kicks consistently in practice; “We just try to keep him levelheaded and positive,” Elzinga said.

An experienced transfer who made his first OU start against UCF, Elzinga understands the up-and-down kaleidoscope of shifting emotions that come with life while kicking a football.

“Everybody has bad days,” Elzings said. “When you have those bad days, it’s just try not to get in a deep, dark place in your mind thinking that you’re not good enough.”

Good enough — or maybe even better — is what the Sooners will need from their kicker over the final month and a half of the season. All eyes will be on Schmit when he lines up for his first field goal Saturday morning at Kansas.

In that moment, it’s worth considering what might and what might not be running through Schmit’s head.

“For me, that last kick and the next kick are not dependent on another,” he has said. “They are very independent of one another.”

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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