Each player on a football field has their role. Quarterbacks lead the offense. Running backs drive the offense forward. Wide receivers break the game open with big catches. Linebackers lead in tackling. Safeties deal huge hits over the middle of the field.
Kickers? They just kick. Or so it seems.
The task of kicking on a collegiate football team is no simple undertaking. One mistake could mean the difference between winning and losing. Even though kickers are only on the field a few times each game, success is expected 100 percent of the time.
Cal Poly junior kicker Casey Sublette is tasked with both place-kicking and punting, putting him on the field more often than the average kicker. Although this isn’t very common, this is not what sets him apart from other kickers in college football.
Sublette is ambipedal, meaning he can kick with either his left or right foot. This gives the Mustangs a rare advantage on special teams.
Sublette has been building this skill almost his entire life, starting as young as 3 years old when he played soccer. He would kick a small foam ball against a screen 100 times with each foot every day to gain consistency with both his left and his right.
“My dad would always tell me, ‘If you want to be a good soccer player, you’ll have to play with both feet,’” Sublette said.
Through his daily practice, Sublette became effective with both feet. Despite being naturally right-handed, he grew to be more dominant with his left foot when kicking off the ground, which explains why he has always done place-kicks with his left in football.
Early in his football career, he would only punt with his right foot. This was the case until his junior college career at El Camino College, where he completely changed his style as a punter.
“Once I got there, we played around with hitting some stuff with the left foot in order to throw off coverages,” Sublette said.
The coaching staff at El Camino had a rare opportunity to develop an ambidextrous punter and made the most of it. Sublette added a new tool to his belt as the team got him to try something new: rugby-style punting.
Many teams in collegiate and professional football are starting to add variety in their kicking games, most notably employing the rugby-style punt. Instead of a traditional-style punt, where the punter takes one or two steps forward before kicking the ball, the punter will roll out to the side of his dominant foot and kick the ball with a running start. Rugby-style allows the punter to deliver an end-over-end kick while avoiding oncoming pressure.
Sublette transferred to Cal Poly in 2016 with his newly developed skill. This added a whole new dimension to the Mustangs’ kicking game.
“There’s never a consistency to it,” Sublette said. “When you throw off their comfortability, they can’t really make plays.”
While most teams look for consistency in their kickers, Cal Poly uses Sublette to create inconsistency. Punting in football seems rather predictable, but the other team cannot be certain what the Mustangs are up to when Sublette is on the field.
“They don’t know which way you’re going to go,” Sublette said. “They can’t necessarily always stack a certain gap because if they do that we can just audible to go the other way.”
Along with changes in direction, Sublette can also deliver different types of punts for different situations, such as low line-drives, spiraling punts with hang time or end-over-end kicks.
End-over-end kicks are used when the punter is trying to pin the ball deep in enemy territory without going over the goal-line for a touchback. The ideal end-over-end kick hits the ground and pops straight up, giving the coverage team ample time to down the ball.
This is where Sublette is most effective. Out of his 69 punts, 24 landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. None of his punts went for touchbacks. Cal Poly was 17th in the FCS in net punting, which speaks to not only Sublette’s play but also the effective coverage of the special teams. Sublette’s best game was arguably against Weber State, in which the punter placed four punts within the Wildcats’ 10-yard line, two of which were downed within two yards of the goal line.
Sublette also takes on place-kicking duties. On kickoffs, the Mustangs ranked first in the Big Sky conference for kickoff return defense, allowing less than 18 yards per return. Sublette was seven of nine on field goals and converted 100 percent of his point-after attempts. Although he scored 25 points fewer than last season, Sublette led the team in scoring in 2017, totaling 11 more points than senior wide receiver Kyle Lewis.
Kickers can win or lose the game for their team. They’re either the hero or the reason for failure. For this reason, kickers are under immense pressure to create the same result every time they step on the field. So many things can go wrong with a kick; the snap, the hold, the drop, the strike, the defensive pressure – the list goes on. Kickers create a nearly impossible standard of perfection and consistency for their performance. Repetition after repetition, kick after kick, punt after punt, kickers look to attain a status that is nothing short of indubitable reliability.
This is why the kicking positions in football are the most specialized. Having an athlete focus on one skill makes sense if you want them to develop that skill as best as they can. This, in turn, heightens expectations, as they should be experts in whatever they are practicing. Sublette conversely embraces his variety of abilities and the volatility that comes as a result. He doesn’t practice just place-kicking or just punts, he does both and takes it to the next level.
While most developing kickers hope to be consistently predictable, Casey Sublette’s advantage comes with being consistently unpredictable in a game that has become increasingly unpredictable itself.