For a while, it appeared Nick Tausch would be the Wally Pipp of Notre Dame kickers.
Nick Tausch did not play last year but has converted 15 of his 18 field goal attempts.
As a freshman in 2009, Tausch set a Notre Dame record by converting 14 consecutive field goals, highlighted by a three-game stretch of nail-biting victories against Michigan State (33-30), Purdue (24-21) and Washington (37-30 in overtime) in which he helped make the difference with his right foot. Against the Huskies alone, he set an Irish single-game record with five field goals in as many attempts amidst rainy, miserable conditions.
Two games later, he drilled both attempts, from 37 and 34 yards, in a hard fought 20-16 victory against Boston College to help end a six-game losing streak to the Eagles
Along with classmates Manti Te’o at linebacker and long-snapper Jordan Cowart, Tausch appeared a cinch to be a rare four-year starter at Notre Dame. Of course, Pipp seemed entrenched in the New Yankees lineup too, until one day he took a day of rest and was “temporarily” replaced by a youngster named Lou Gehrig.
Tausch’s record streak came to an end with 41- and 30-yard misses in a 23-21 loss to Navy, and then the following week he pulled up lame with an injury during pre-game warm-ups, forcing the Irish to insert walk-on David Ruffer, whose lone previous kicking attempt was a missed PAT a year earlier.
Ruffer finished the season 5-of-5 on his field-goal attempts (and 9-of-10 on PATs). Then, in perhaps the most competitive battle on the team prior to the 2010 season, Ruffer edged out Tausch by the slightest of margins in the pre-season for the starting job. Ruffer went on to become one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, presented to the nation’s top kicker, while converting his first 18 field goals before missing his final attempt.
Tausch’s lone field-goal attempt in 2010 was a 34-yard make in a 33-17 Sun Bowl victory versus Miami, and last year he sat out while leaving field-goal duties to Ruffer and kickoffs to freshman Kyle Brindza.
With Ruffer’s eligibility now exhausted, Tausch has a huge appreciation of winning back a starting role. Kelly indicated after the 14th practice on Wednesday that Tausch had earned the starting role over the talented Brindza, the lone Parade All-America kicker in the 2011 recruiting class. Tausch’s competitive instincts were honed the past two seasons even though he admitted losing his starting slot was a tough pill to swallow.
“I think it was at the time, but looking back on it, it made me not take anything for granted, and just go out and work hard every day,” Tausch said. “It kind of opened my eyes and made me better right now. It made me work harder, more dedication in the weight room and more dedication on the field.
It definitely made me grow as a person and a kicker.”
Tausch added that it was more about Ruffer earning the job than him taking anything for granted.
“I know I’m not the type of person to ever think that I ever have anything,” he said. “I think I went out and competed well. I think Ruffer just took advantage of [the opportunity], he did well and I’m happy for him. He’s a great friend of mine and I wish him the best of luck.”
An encore act was going to be difficult for Ruffer to replicate in 2011, and it was immediately evident when he missed from 30 yards in the opening-game 23-20 loss to South Florida. He finished 10-of-16 on the year and missed his last two attempts — a 20-yard try at Stanford in the regular season finale setback and from 47 yards in the 18-14 defeat to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Prior to those two misses, Ruffer and Tausch had combined to make 48 of their 56 field-goal attempts, an impressive .857 percentage.
In last Saturday’s scrimmage, there were a couple of snafus with the snap and hold, plus a 43-yard attempt by Tausch that was blocked by Bennett Jackson and returned for a touchdown by Carlo Calabrese. Tausch took responsibility on that play, saying he was slow and hesitant on the operation time. From snap to hold to kick, the goal is supposed to be at 1.25 to 1.3 seconds, and on the block it was between 1.35-1.4.
However, Tausch converted all his other attempts — highlighted by a 50-yard field goal that sailed into the net several yards beyond the goal post.
“One thing I’ve done this spring is I’ve really been focused on driving the ball,” he said. “I’m not really worried about my height as much. I think pretty much my whole life I’ve been worried about height and it kind of really hasn’t been getting wowed by anybody or anything.
“I’ve always had good height. It’s not like I’m trying to change my trajectory a whole lot. I’m just trying to focus on a little more distance.”
On kickoffs, it’s going to be a matter of strategy. With the kickoffs moved up from the 30 to 35, Brindza’s stronger leg has a better chance of kicking the ball out of the end zone — with touchbacks now coming out to the 25 instead of 20. However, the Irish staff is also evaluating whether the high hang times by Tausch gives the coverage team a better chance to pin the opponent inside the 20.
“With the new kickoff rules, you have the option to hang it up or kick it out,” Tausch said. “I think I can do both. I can hang it up on the goal line with 4.3, 4.4 hang time, and at the same time I have the leg strength to drive it out of the end zone.”
Year after year, at least two or three games are decided on special teams excellence. With his prior game experience in crucial experiences, Tausch at least has a leg up in that area.