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View from the 'ville
Thursday, September 20, 2007

By Al Myatt

Hartman confronting kicking demons

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Ben Hartman said the most nervousness he has experienced as a field goal kicker at East Carolina wasn't before he drilled the 39-yarder that produced a dramatic 34-31 win over North Carolina earlier this season.

It was a conversion kick in a 20-17 win at Southern Miss last year when he was a redshirt freshman. Hartman had won the kicking job for the week in competition with Robert Lee. The Pirates had trimmed the Golden Eagles' lead to 17-16 with just 13 seconds left in regulation on a 2-yard run by quarterback James Pinkney.

"After J.P. scored that touchdown, I was more nervous on that extra point than anything," Hartman said. "When I got back there, the goal posts looked a mile away. The distance to those poles looked like forever."

Hartman successfully survived that moment and added a 19-yard field goal in overtime that provided the winning margin.

Despite his heroic boot against the Tar Heels 12 days ago, Hartman is again involved in competition to determine who will trot onto the field this week at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, WV, in those all or nothing placekicking situations.

Hartman, sophomore transfer Matt Dodge and redshirt freshman Murphy Paderick are competing for the job because Pirates coach Skip Holtz is understandably concerned that Hartman has hit just 2 of 6 attempts this season. His four misses are from 37 yards and closer, a range where college kickers are expected to connect.

Charlie Brown doesn't do much worse than that in the Peanuts comic strip with his uncooperative holder.

Hartman's team of snapper Wilson Raynor and holder Joe Sloan have been very efficient this season, but Hartman has suddenly become ECU football's equivalent of former St. Louis pitcher Rick Ankiel, whose accuracy from the mound became extremely elusive.

Holtz realized something had to be done after Hartman pulled a 27-yarder wide left on the Pirates first possession in an eventual 28-21 loss to Southern Miss last week. Any momentum from the UNC-Chapel Hill victory seemed to slip from the Pirates' grasp at that point. ECU recovered eventually to outscore Southern Miss 21-0 in the third quarter but Hartman didn't get a chance to atone — other than extra points — as he did for his three previous misses against the Tar Heels.

"I think we need to get more consistent because two out of six field goals is not acceptable, especially when all but one of the kicks have been inside the 20 (line of scrimmage)," Holtz said earlier this week. "If a player at another position performed in such a way, we would make a change."

Punting hasn't been ideal either, according to Holtz, as the Pirates have clearly struggled when putting the foot into the football.

"Matt's average punt looks good on paper but we have benefited from the ball rolling," Holtz said. "If people start catching those, we are in for a long day. I would rather have the 40-yard punts instead of a mix of 30 and 50. Ultimately, we need to put that competition into our practice so that we can find out who will be ready to play against West Virginia."

The Mountaineers are 3-0 this season and are ranked No. 5. The Pirates need for all systems to be functioning at peak efficiency as they venture into a venue where they are 0-11 all-time.

The competition this year is different for Hartman, who moved ahead of Lee on occasion in 2006.

"Instead of me being the hunter like I was last year, I'm the hunted," Hartman said. "They're coming for me. It's my job to lose."

Former Pirate kicker Kevin Miller, ECU's career scoring leader with 287 points on 52 field goals and 131 conversion kicks, was at practice on Tuesday and provided a voice of experience for Hartman to heed.

"I worked with Kevin Miller yesterday and it's pretty much come down to we're just gonna throw out all that other — like rigmarole — that whole critiquing here and there and all that stuff," Hartman said. "Just go out and kick the ball.

"So much of that analyzation goes in and out. You just need to go out there and have fun."

Like Miller, Hartman enjoys golf. Miller is basically a scratch player. Hartman shoots in the mid-80's.

New staff addition Vernon Hargreaves is special teams coordinator but Hartman said Hargreaves' knowledge of kicking is limited. A student assistant actually supervises the ECU booters in practice. Don Yanowsky handled ECU's special teams last year but he left to join the staff at Boston College.

Tom Taracani of Pennsylvania-based Fourth Down Sports is the guy who Hartman relies on for technical advice.

The most basic thing that Hartman focuses on when kicking is seeing the ball. Kickers can no longer use a rubber block to kick from in the college game. The ball is spotted directly on the playing surface by the holder and Hartman aims for the bottom white line around the pigskin, which is about three-fourths from the top of the ball when it is spotted by Sloan.

"Watch the ball is pretty much the biggest thing," Hartman said.

At the south end of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Hartman focuses on a light pole about 40 yards beyond the goal posts.

"You look at the uprights and try to hit that target," Hartman said. "I try to hit the light pole."

At the north end of the stadium which is bordered by the Murphy Center, Hartman lines up on the emblem on the netting which is raised on placekicks.

"They've got that Allstate thing now," he said. "I try to hit right above it or try to put it above the net."

Hartman said following the North Carolina game that the impact of his winning kick had not sunken in at that point.

"To be brutally honest, it's really never sunk in," Hartman said on Wednesday afternoon. "I expect myself to come through in situations like that. My job is to put it through the sticks and I struggled throughout most of that game. When the team needs me, I do my job."

Hartman missed one left from 30 yards on his first attempt against the Tar Heels. Then he connected from 33 yards. He missed right from 32 yards and was no good after hitting the left upright from 37 yards before ending the game with his 39-yarder.

"I wasn't watching the ball," Hartman said of his overall ineffectual performance. "It was a lack of focus. It sounds kind of petty but there ain't much to it. I know how to kick a ball. It just comes down to the little things.

"I just need to trust my snapper, my holder and the rest of the field goal protection unit. It's being smooth, watching the ball and focus.

"The kick Saturday night (against Southern Miss) was just a matter of not watching the ball. I went back and watched it on film."

Hartman said he has hit from 70 yards in practice with the Pirates.

"There was a little bit of breeze at my back," he said. "I did it the year I was redshirted (2005). It was off of grass."

His career longest at ECU in a game was a 47-yarder in the first quarter at Southern Miss. He hit 3 of 5 field goal attempts last season and all nine of his extra point attempts. Hartman had a 45-yarder to his credit in high school.

Hartman began playing soccer when he was four years old. He progressed in that sport to play on elite traveling teams in the Winston-Salem area. He played soccer at North Davidson in addition to kicking duties in football. His dad was a running back and an older brother was a lineman at North Davidson.

"A soccer ball, you can hit it about anywhere and get away with it," Hartman said. "A football, you've got to hit it at the right spot."

Hartman, whose blond hair is easily spotted when he removes his helmet, said he doesn't dye his hair.

"It's natural," he said. "I get asked that a lot."

Hartman walked on at ECU but has since been placed on scholarship.

The kickers involved in competition at ECU this week are charted on a total of 15 kicks starting with the line of scrimmage at the 5-yard line and progressing in five-yard increments back to the 25-yard line for a longest of 42 yards. The kickers have three attempts at each spot for the total of 15.

Hartman said he doesn't know how the competition stands and doesn't know how many kickers ECU will take to Morgantown. Tom McClellan, director of athletic media relations, said he doesn't expect to update the depth chart until Saturday.

"I just worry about myself," Hartman said of his approach to this week's competition. "I just come out here and try to be the best kicker I can be."

Field goal kickers have to be ready when they're called on.

"You can't go back and re-kick," Hartman said. "You're one and done. If you make it, cross that line, slap everybody up and move on to your next kick. It could be in three quarters, three minutes or three games. You have to prepare for that next opportunity.

"You're only as good as your last kick from what everybody says."

If Hartman does connect, he moves upfield to kick off. New rules have moved kickoffs back to the 30-yard line and that provides a different challenge.

"You've got to emphasize hang time instead of distance," he said. "Last year you could get away with driving it eight or nine or 10 (yards) deep. The guy isn't going to bring it out unless he's crazy or he thinks he's that good.

"You've got to put more hang time on it now. You still want to get it into the end zone but there's more emphasis on the hang time."

Hartman has missed some field goals this season and some kickoff opportunities as a result. That's why he's kicking in practice this week to determine if he will continue kicking on Saturday.

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09/20/2007 02:47:43 AM


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