On whatever nights Bob Surace ’90 sleeps coming off a 1-9 season, he can dream of overtimes in 2011 and games on Patrick Jacob ’12’s foot.
“He missed a field goal last year [against Brown],” said the Princeton coach. “I’m not one of those coaches who feels the kicker isn’t part of the team so I put my arm around him on the sideline, told him to hang in there.
“He said ‘Coach, I never miss two in a row.’
“There is a fine border between confidence and arrogance. He stretches that line. You have to have confidence in that spot, the whole world is watching you. When the holder or snapper messes up everybody looks at the kicker regardless. So you have to have a short memory and he does.
“If Pat misses a point-after-touchdown, he applies it to the kickoff.”
Jacob missed just one of 14 PATs last year and only four of 18 field goal attempts, three of those failures coming from 44 yards or longer. He led the Ivy League in field-goal percentage, averaged 63 yards on kickoffs, and is the leading reason why Princeton’s kicking game might be the surest this year in the Ancient Eight.
While the Tigers are working on their first three downs, they have fourth down down. Joe Cloud ’13 led the league with a punting average of 42.7 yards, nailing eight kicks of 50 yards or more, and eight that made the opposition start inside the 20. Otavio Fleury ’12 had the third-best average (39.8) in the league and owns a touch like Jack Nicklaus from 180 feet from the pin over a bunker.
Cloud punted 34 times last year, Fleury 24. It’s quite unusual having two first-string punters and also quite the luxury.
“We would be lucky to have one,” said Surace. “It’s like going to the bullpen for the righty or the lefty. [Roger Hughes’ staff] hit home runs when they recruited these guys.
“There is not a practice day that Cloud doesn’t hit a terrific 50-yard kick. He has trouble controlling his leg strength, a good thing when you’re inside the 20, not a good thing when you are inside the 50.
“Fleury has been better at those, but Joe has improved at that, too. I think he could kick for anybody in the country, and I don’t think that would have been the case if he wasn’t being challenged every day by Otavio.”
Unfortunately, there is only one ball and only so many punts a game. Actually, in 2010, there were too many punts a game, but Fleury and Cloud buy into this year’s plan for a lot more first downs and are willing to compete for declining opportunities. They hardly are the types to kick each other when they are down.
“I hosted Joe when he came [for his recruiting visit],” said Fleury. “I [worked] my hardest to bring him in. It’s about making the program better, not our personal interests.”
“The competition really has made us better,” said Cloud. “Week to week, we’re not really sure who is going to start.
“Sometimes we’ll have different strategies going into a game, whether we are going left, right, or where we want to position the ball, who is best in certain situations. But whoever punts best that week deserves to play.”
Both on and off the field, they have good hang time together, not that you would expect anything less from a punter named Cloud, intent on getting Princeton football back up there where they think it should be.
Jacob is as certain of a turnaround as he is about himself. Surace, new last season, initially wasn’t sure how to take his place kicker when he saw players wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Jacob for Judge.”
“I thought maybe he was a locker room lawyer,” laughed the coach. But it turned out Patrick’s father Harry is the lawyer in the family and the shirts were campaign materials from his successful election to a municipal court judge position in suburban Cleveland.
His son instead plans to go into finance, which seems like the right call for a kicker who is money in the bank. “Joe and Otavio can tell you confidence is not a problem of mine,” said Jacob.
Of course Princeton’s plan is not only for a reduction in punts this year, but for more red-zone conversions and fewer field goals, too.
“That’s okay, that means more extra points,” said Jacob. “I love kicking those too – they’re easier.”