UNIVERSITY PARK — The grass wasn’t manicured. It was a fall mix of caked mud and spotty turf.
The kicker didn’t mind.
Sam Ficken approached the ball, planting his left foot and extending his right leg in a smooth motion. He made clean contact, sending the ball high into the Griffin, Ind., sky.
His teammates at Valparaiso High School watched. The ball split the uprights, allowing an entire sideline to boast they witnessed the longest field goal in school history.
That 2009 night when Ficken converted a 52-yard field goal without using a tee has become a distant high school memory.
But those close to Ficken, Penn State's embattled sophomore kicker, understand the potential residing in his right leg, which missed five kicks in Saturday's 17-16 loss at Virginia.
ldquo;He never missed for us,” said Mark Hoffman, who coached Valparaiso High School.
In two years as Valparaiso’s kicker, Ficken never missed an extra point and converted more than 80 percent of his field goal chances. Hoffman, who retired after last season, sent more than 40 players to Division I schools. The group includes former Notre Dame kicker Carl Gioia and wide receiver Jeff Samardzija.
None had a better leg than Ficken.
"We have had some quality kids,” Hoffman said, “and Sam Ficken is without a doubt our most prolific kicker.”
Hoffman said he noticed something different after Ficken missed his first field goal last Saturday, a 40-yarder that sailed wide left. Hoffman saw somebody he calls a “grounded kid” exhibiting an unrecognizable look on his face. The look foreshadowed the rest of Ficken’s day.
Ficken’s next two misses, from 38 and 20 yards, were kicks he always converted in high school. A protection breakdown then led to an extra point being blocked. Ficken knuckled a 32-yarder between the goalposts before pulling a 42-yarder on the game’s final play.
Hoffman hasn’t spoken with Ficken since the game. But he left the kicker multiple voicemails, including one after the final miss.
“I told him to keep his head down and kick through the ball,” Hoffman said. “I also told him, ‘Hey, you’re still a great kicker. You just looked up on the ball, so hang in there.’”
The kicking game and Ficken represented a major topic throughout Penn State coach Bill O’Brien’s weekly news conference Tuesday at Beaver Stadium. Nine of the 30 questions O’Brien fielded involved special teams.
O’Brien called football a “team sport” and said other factors such as shaky snaps and holds and protection breakdowns contributed to Ficken’s misses.
Ficken had a busy practice Monday, with O’Brien initially telling reporters Ficken attempted 300 kicks. O’Brien said later that number “was probably an exaggeration.”
O’Brien, though, made it clear that Ficken hasn’t wasted time returning to work.
“He takes a lot of pride in it,” O’Brien said.
The first-year coach was asked Tuesday if he has considered opening up the kicking job. Ficken also handles the kickoff duties.
“To be honest with you, it’s open every week,” O’Brien said. “We chart the kicks. We chart the accuracy. We chart the percentages of kicks made. We chart the operation time. It’s really open every week. It’s not like Sam Ficken’s been our kicker no matter what. We open it up every week and he’s won the job every week.”
Ficken was elevated to the top spot after Anthony Fera transferred to Texas. Fera was one of the Big Ten’s top kickers in 2011, but utilized the NCAA transfer waiver for Penn State players that came with sanctions against the program.
Redshirt freshman Matt Marcincin and sophomore Kevin DiSanto are the Nittany Lions’ other kickers. DiSanto, a State College High School graduate, joined the team last month after successfully completing his fifth tryout in two years. Marcincin was the only other kicker on last weekend’s travel roster.
O’Brien said leg strength separates Ficken from the team’s other two kickers.
“He’s the best of what we have got there and that’s no discredit to the other guys,” O’Brien said. “He’s just a little bit better.”
Restoring Ficken’s confidence is one of this week’s objectives. Penn State hasn’t made Ficken available to reporters, leaving teammates as the only public link to his mental state.
“Ficken knows he’s a better player than that,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said. “It’s something he has to shake off. I think he’s done that.”
Ficken has endured intense criticism since last Saturday. But cornerback Adrian Amos said the team doesn’t consider Ficken the reason for the loss, which dropped Penn State to 0-2 for just the 10th time in school history.
“Nobody is down on Ficken or blaming Ficken for anything,” Amos said. “We just have to move on. Sometimes you have good games, sometimes you have bad games. He probably knows his mistakes and he’s working hard just like the rest of us.”
Ficken arrived in Penn State last year brimming with confidence. Valparaiso doesn’t permit athletes to play two sports in the same season, so Ficken ditched soccer for football before his junior year.
He blossomed early in his senior season and Hoffman sent film to every school in the Big Ten and Mid-American Conferences.
“He blew it up his first few games,” Hoffman said. “He was kicking like crazy.”
Hoffman placed follow-up calls to schools that needed kickers. Akron was the first Division I program to offer a scholarship and Ficken orally committed to the Zips. Three days later, Michigan called Hoffman about Ficken. The next call came from Mike McQueary, who coordinated Penn State’s recruiting efforts at the time.
McQueary, who is no longer with the program, visited Valparaiso. Ficken visited State College. Ficken de-committed from Akron shortly after receiving a scholarship offer from Penn State.
Until last Saturday, Ficken, whose cousin, Robbie Hummel, played basketball at Purdue, quietly attended classes and kicked footballs. The business major earned a 3.46 GPA while learning from Fera as a freshman.
“I have empathy for him,” Hoffman said. “He’s a top-notch kid. He’s an honors student and multi-talented. He’s a great human being. He has high character. You couldn’t ask for a better individual.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy