UCLA’s Stefan Flintoft wouldn’t mind becoming the invisible punter.
“In a perfect world,” Flintoft said Saturday, “I would never see the field because that means we just outplayed the other team completely.”
It’s been known to happen with coach Chip Kelly’s previous college teams. At their best, with the offense moving relentlessly down the field and often going for it on fourth down, Kelly’s Oregon Ducks made having punters and kickers optional.
But the Bruins’ kicking game could give their new coach additional options. Kelly might be tempted to go for three points instead of seven, or to pin teams deep inside their 20-yard line rather than tempt fate on a fourth-and-one situation.
Flintoft was so essential to the team’s success last season that he was awarded a scholarship. J.J. Molson was among the most consistent kickers in the Pac-12, making 17 of 21 field-goal tries, including a 37-yarder with four seconds left against California that gave UCLA the victory it needed to gain bowl eligibility.
Flintoft called it “a good builder year” going into his senior season, the less-than-glowing description a nod to his perfectionism after he averaged 42.9 yards per punt and placed 21 of his punts inside the 20-yard line.
“This year I’m definitely a lot more strict with my punts,” said Flintoft, who is on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award that goes to the nation’s top punter. “But at the end of the day, we’re not really going for averages. I’m just trying to have the best kick in each situation.”
Asked what sort of punts would meet his expectations, Flintoft said he wanted to average at least 45 yards.
Molson, a junior, said he wanted to maintain his trajectory of last season, when he made major strides with consistency. He made all 10 of his attempts from 27 yards Saturday during the portion of practice that reporters were allowed to watch.
Molson’s kicks came during a speed drill in which he lined up 15 yards in front of counterpart Andrew Strauch, Molson kicking the ball and rushing to the opposite hash mark while Strauch launched a kick from behind him on the other side of the field. The point was to make the kickers comfortable being uncomfortable.
“In a game, you’re going to have 15, 17 seconds to go out there,” Molson said. “Here, he’s counting down, ‘Five, four, three … ’ So it’s not necessarily the tempo that we’re going to play at, but it’s more of a training exercise.”
Molson, who is on the watch list for the Lou Groza Award that goes to the nation’s top kicker, said Kelly’s sports science program includes individualized training, with strength and conditioning exercises tailored specifically for kickers.
“The whole infrastructure and the support behind it is just so much more solid and I think it’s very precise,” Molson said. “There’s no room for guessing. Everything that we’re doing has a purpose.”
And the results likely will shape Kelly’s decisions involving his kickers and punters once the games start.
“If he wants to go for it on fourth down,” Flintoft said, “then hell yeah. I want a first down just as much as anyone else does.”
Flintoft family plan
Flintoft received a call last spring about a high school prospect the coaching staff was interested in that he knew well. It was his cousin.
Collin Flintoft had given a verbal commitment to Cal as a preferred walk-on but happily switched allegiances once the Bruins offered a comparable package. Both of his parents attended UCLA, where his father played rugby. It also probably didn’t hurt that Stefan called to pitch the school.
“He’s always been the biggest UCLA fan I’ve ever known,” Stefan said of his cousin.
Stefan and Collin are familiar with each other’s kicking styles because they both attended Los Angeles Loyola High and shared the same private coach, punting together on weekends.
Of course, family ties go only so far. Collin, being a freshman, is living in the dorms and not rooming with Stefan. But he hopes to emulate the cousin who won a scholarship halfway into his college career.