Navy football auditioning three candidates for kicking job
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: August 13, 2019
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Head coach Ken Niumatalolo didn’t worry about extra points and field goals for the past three seasons.
Navy football was blessed with a top-notch placekicker in Bennett Moehring, who was a three-year starter. Moehring completed his career as the school’s all-time record-holder for points by a kicker (222) and extra points (141).
“Bennett did a great job and had a tremendous career. He was very, very reliable,” Niumatalolo said last week.
Niumatalolo was reminiscing about Moehring because he knows it won’t be easy to replace one of the best placekickers in recent program history. The Midshipmen are currently auditioning three candidates for the job and it remains a wide-open competition.
Senior J.R. Osborn is listed on the depth chart as the starter, but is still rounding into form after sitting out the entire 2018 season with a groin injury. The Tennessee native was supposed to serve as Navy’s kickoff specialist, but got hurt in the season opener at Hawaii and never returned.
Osborn is part of Navy football folklore for coming off the bench to kick the game-winning field goal against SMU in 2017. Moehring was unavailable due to an ankle injury so Osborn was pressed into service and converted an 18-yard attempt that lifted the Midshipmen to a 43-40 victory.
That was the lone win over the final seven games of that season for Navy, which finished 6-6 then routed Virginia in the Military Bowl.
“J.R. kicked one time and made a really big field goal,” Niumatalolo noted. “I don’t know if you can have a more pressure-packed situation. He had to make a last-second kick to get us bowl eligible.”
Osborn also handled kickoff duties in four games as a sophomore, averaging 57.3 yards on 15 attempts. The 6-foot, 190-pound product of Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville averaged almost 60 yards on six kickoffs against Hawaii before suffering the groin injury.
Sophomore Ben Fee is battling Osborn for the starting job. Fee was a two-time, first team All-State selection at St. Mary’s Preparatory in Michigan. He set a state championship game record by booting a 49-yard field goal against Muskegon in 2016.
Senior Owen White, entering his third season as the starting punter, is also in the mix at placekicker and often out-performs both Osborn and Fee. Niumatalolo said the coaching staff would prefer to have White focus on punting duties.
“We want Owen to be more of a backup (kicker) because he’s a really good punter,” Niumatalolo said. “We’d go with Owen as a last option. We don’t want to affect his punting by having him do too much. That’s a lot of torque on your body, a lot of stress on your legs.”
White excelled as both a kicker and punter at Central Catholic High in Oregon, earning all-conference honors for both roles. The 5-foot-10, 197-pounder was second team All-State as a punter and decided to pursue that specialty at Navy.
“I marketed myself mostly as a punter because I saw that was a specialist spot the team needed,” said White, who resumed practicing place kicks as a sophomore because he knew being able to do both would improve his chances of making the travel squad.
White feels confident he could handle both place kicks and punts if necessary. He pointed to Oklahoma standout Austin Seibert, now with the Cleveland Browns, as an example of a recent specialist who has done so.
“It can absolutely be done. You just have to take care of your leg. That’s a lot of repetitions and can really take a toll,” he said. “I know punting is my primary job, but I’ll still take (kicking) reps in practice so I’m ready if needed.”
White has been Navy’s starting punter the past two seasons and has averaged 41.1 yards on 95 attempts. He’s boomed 18 punts of 50 yards or longer and had a total of 51 either fair caught or downed inside the 20-yard line.
Remember that SMU game that Moehring missed with an ankle injury? It was actually White, not Osborn, who kicked the point after touchdowns in that contest – going 4-for-5 and having one blocked.
White got hurt late in that game, which is why he was unavailable to attempt the final field goal that Osborn booted.
Steve Johns, who oversees the PAT-field goal unit for Navy, said the coaching staff hopes to make a decision about the starting kicker by the end of this week.
“We’re still trying to find an answer there. Those three guys are fairly even right now. No one has really stood out,” Johns said. “We’ve got a month to sort this all out and finalize it.”
Johns mentioned that White gets the ball up the fastest of the three kickers, which is an important element. Fee is practicing as both a punter and placekicker and has improved significantly since his plebe year. Osborn’s leg is getting stronger, but still is not where it was prior to the groin injury.
“Those guys are all working hard. I have confidence that one of those guys will be ready and will be capable of doing the job,” Niumatalolo said.
Johns said Navy would probably travel a starting placekicker and punter along with a third specialist capable of doing both in case either got hurt. The Midshipmen could possibly travel just two specialists if the kicker could punt and vice versa.
During the first week of August training camp, the three kickers were holding for each other. At present, it appears White will serve as the holder for whoever the kicker winds up being.
“It’s whoever the kickers feel comfortable with. Right now, because of the amount of practice they’ve had with each other, they feel most comfortable holding for each other,” Johns said.
Pablo Beltran was the last punter to serve as the holder. White admits he’s still getting a feel for the job.
“We’re still trying to iron out the whole operation at this point,” White said. “I’m kind of new to holding so I’m trying to get as much practice as possible. I started doing it in the spring and feel I’ve improved a lot, but obviously there’s still a long way to go.”
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