One thing that can age a football coach is having a freshman placekicker or punter who’s unproven and unpredictable.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe has one of both, and it has been a struggle at times for the Blue Devils in the first three games and a factor in the 1-2 start.
AJ Reed, a true freshman, has missed all three field-goal attempts and an extra point. Another point-after knuckled its way through the uprights.
Punter Austin Parker has averaged 42.2 yards on 19 kicks, had six punts of 50 or more yards and had six downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line. That’s all good.
Parker, a redshirt freshman from Mount Pleasant, dropped a punt snap in the opener against N.C. Central. That wasn’t a big problem with Duke holding a big lead.
But Saturday against Northwestern, the Blue Devils and Wildcats were tied 7-7 in the third period. Cutcliffe was talking to quarterback Daniel Jones on the Duke sideline when Parker somehow dropped another one.
The snap was a good one, waist-high. Parker simply muffed it, then stumbled trying to scoop up the ball and was tackled at the Duke 44.
On Northwestern’s first play, the Wildcats scored on a pass from Clayton Thorson to Solomon Vault.
For the past four years, kicking was not one of Cutcliffe’s concerns. Ross Martin handled the placekicks and Will Monday the punting and both received All-ACC honors.
Things have changed, although Cutcliffe said he did not want to play mind games with the new kickers.
“I don’t want to make it an issue,” he said. “As soon as you make it a huge issue, then you have people trembling. I’m very confident we have the right people.”
Cutcliffe said he has spent considerable time with Reed and Parker looking at video, critiquing, trying to help. Being positive.
“I’m trying to build confidence, not tear ’em down,” he said. “It’s like you’ve got a good baseball player in a hitting slump. Rarely do you just rip him.
“A better baseball example is I’ve always thought of placekickers, punters, you treat them like relief pitchers, your closers. You don’t go out and snatch the ball away from your closer, if you’re a good manager. They always pat ’em in the tail. Why? Because they’re going to have to win for you tomorrow night.
“These guys have to win for us. If they miss one in the first quarter, they have to win one for us in the fourth quarter. You have to be smart about the approach.”
Reed, from Prattville, Ala., missed two field goals in the 24-14 loss to Wake Forest. On Saturday, with the Blue Devils trailing Northwestern 17-7, he missed on a 34-yard attempt and later on the point-after — both wide-right kicks.
Reed was a three-star recruit and rated the No. 11 kicker by Scout.com. He successfully kicked his first 10 PATs this season before the miss at Northwestern, which ended a streak of 162 consecutive made PATs by Duke that stretched to Dec. 27, 2012 against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
“I’m looking at the snap, the hold, the consistency of the kick. I’m looking at everything we’re doing,” Cutcliffe said.
Senior Danny Stirt is the backup punter and kicker. But for now, Cutcliffe says he will stick with the young guys.
Parker’s father, Daren, was a college punter at South Carolina and spent a year with the Denver Broncos. Austin Parker knows all the fundamentals and also serves as the holder on Reed’s kicks.
But it’s a matter of Parker and Reed getting the job done in games.
“You have to earn confidence,” Cutcliffe said. “Nobody can give you confidence. You’re either prepared or you’re not, and the person most important to know that is yourself.
“These guys are smart, hard-working young men. They will be fine.”