Twenty, 19, 18 …
The play clock dwindled as UCLA’s J.J. Molson trotted onto Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., last week to attempt a 50-yard field goal, the longest of his career.
Seventeen, 16, 15 …
The kicker who relies on a rigid routine noticed something that disrupted his rhythm. A huge divot was on the field where he wanted to try his kick. Molson tossed it aside and noticed another one next to the hash mark as the clock continued to tick.
“I look up at the [play] clock and I’m like … ” Molson recalled, whispering a word not fit to print, “there’s 11 seconds, so I had to rush my steps back.”
Fortunately for Molson, this is where another routine kicked in.
He was used to working quickly after coach Chip Kelly’s rapid-fire practice drills forced him to kick 10 field goals in about two minutes from varying spots on the field.
“Once you practice at such a high speed,” Molson said, “having to rush my steps kind of felt natural to me.”
Molson charged toward the ball, kicked it squarely and watched as it sailed through the uprights. He had a new career long, continuing a stretch of consistency in which he has made nine consecutive field goals going back to last season.
Only a quarter of the way through his junior season, Molson has ascended the record list at a school known for its kickers. His 33 field goals put him into a tie with Chris Sailer for eighth place on UCLA’s all-time list while giving Kelly a reliable alternative to going for it on fourth down.
“If you have a kicker who can kick like J.J.,” Kelly said, “it’s a huge deal.”
Kelly said he continually engages in discussions with Molson, gauging field position and conditions to assess whether a field goal is a realistic option.
“I talk to J.J. every game — ‘Where are we now?’ ” Kelly said. “If you get it to the 38-yard line, we’ve got a shot, depending on the weather. If you get it to the 35, we’ve got a shot.”
Molson estimated that kicking in Colorado’s high altitude added seven or eight yards to his distance, but the chilly nighttime air subtracted two or three yards. He said he felt comfortable with any kicks of 52 yards or fewer at the Rose Bowl but would be up for 55 yards if needed.
It might be less pressure than Molson felt when he once made a field goal from the latter distance with Alabama coach Nick Saban watching during a high school camp. Saban immediately offered Molson a scholarship, but he eventually turned it down to become a Bruin.
Molson has made all four of his field goals and all eight of his extra-point attempts this season. Eleven of his 17 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. He said his improved accuracy was a function of a new routine that encompasses his diet and recovery in addition to what he does in pregame warmups and before each kick.
“Just trying to recreate the same thing every time,” he said.
Molson also credited the strength and conditioning staff’s position-specific training with helping him develop a more fluid motion.
“That allows you to just kick so much easier,” Molson said, “not to really try and kill it, you’re able to kick it nice and smooth.”