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UT's Kicking Game, and A Possible 2014 Target

For the first time in what feels like forever, the Texas Longhorns are going into a new football season with a big question mark at the placekicker position. Longhorn fans have been spoiled by consistently solid performances from their team's kickers in the past several years. Outside of defensive back, there may not be a position on the team that has had a more sustained record of success in the past decade than placekicker. Texas won't be dubbed "Kick U" any time soon, though, as Phil Dawson is the only ex-Longhorn kicker to appear in an NFL game in the past 20 years. But while UT's kickers haven't made the impact in the pros that alumni at other position groups have, they have more than made up for it by providing the margin of victory in some of the program's most memorable wins in recent years.

Mention the names Dusty Mangum, Ryan Bailey, Hunter Lawrence or Justin Tucker, and fans will be reminded of clutch kicks that gave Texas victories in the 2005 Rose Bowl, the 2006 Nebraska game (in Lincoln, no less), the 2007 Oklahoma State game (in which Texas trailed by 21 going into the 4th quarter), the 2009 BIg 12 Championship Game, and in their last conference match-up with Texas A&M this past November. Tucker was responsible for that last one. but he has graduated and left the program with no clear successor.

The battle for the placekicking job will be one of the main storylines to watch once fall practice begins. Candidates to fill the position are: (scholarship) sophomore William Russ, redshirt freshman walk-on Ben Pruitt, 2012 signee Nick Jordan, and true freshman walk-on Nick Rose. Russ and Pruitt failed to make enough of an impression in spring practice for either to seize the placekicking or punting duties. Rose was brought into the fold more because of the leg strength he showed on kickoffs than for his accuracy on field goals. Jordan only attempted nine field goals in his senior high school season (making five), but based on the video seen here, he could very well be the best of the four kickers.

Of the four kickers UT will have on campus this fall, only one (Russ) will be an upperclassman next year. Because of that and the small number of scholarships available for the 2013 class, Texas is unlikely to use a scholarship on another kicker in 2013, unless the team's performance in that area during the season is so poor that no kicker has the coaching staff's confidence at the end of the season. But what about 2014? The staff may look to add a talented kicker in the 2014 class, preferably one versatile enough to potentially take over either the placekicking or punting duties when needed. And taking a kicker (be he on scholarship or a walk-on) in 2014 would be wise for depth purposes even if Nick Jordan is lights-out this fall, locks down the placekicker job through the 2015 season and becomes the fourth Longhorn kicker to make an All-Big 12 Team. (Who are the only three Longhorns to be voted to an All-Big 12 First or Second Team? Answer at the bottom of the story.)

After the jump, I'll profile Yanni Routsas, one of the top kickers in the 2014 class, and a leading candidate to be UT's next target at that position.

Yanni Routsas, an incoming junior at Clear Brook High School in Friendswood, Texas, is among the top kickers and top punters in the 2014 class. We have this assessment on the authority of Chris Sailer Kicking, which claims on its Twitter page to be "the number one authority for kickers, punters and long snappers in the country." Yanni is currently ranked 15th out of the 112 kickers in his class that Sailer has graded. Among the 24 graded punters in the 2014 class, Routsas is ranked 5th. Regarding his placekicking skills, the Chris Sailer evaluators say this:

Yanni is very good kicker. A good looking athlete with a big time leg. Field goals are strong. Kickoffs are coming along nicely. Punting is also solid and will only continue to improve. A fine young man with a great attitude and worth ethic. Keep a close eye on this this talented young prospect.

A previous evaluation, recently replaced by the one above, was even more effusive:

Yanni is very good kicker that shows the potential to be great. A good looking athlete with a big time leg. Field goals are his current strength. Kickoffs need to improve to become one of the very best. With his size and athletcism, he should also be a fine punting prospect with hard work. A fine young man with a great attitude and worth ethic. Keep a close eye on this this talented young prospect.

And to top it off, Sailer says this about Yanni as a punter, a position he could potentially fill for UT while waiting his turn to be the next placekicker:

Yanni has the size, strength, and athleticism to dominate this position. The sky is the limit with hard work! Has the tools to continue to develop here. Also a very good kicker. Should be a top combo prospect in his class. Nice prospect.

Because Routsas shares a first name (though thankfully not the same hairstyle) with the famous Greek new age musician, there are all kinds of remarks that could be made, but Chris Sailer refrains from suggesting that Yanni's collegiate kicks will cause "reflections of passion", induce "nostalgia" (for Justin Tucker), leave the "echo of a dream", or score "nine" (points) for his team. Sailer also doesn't go so far as to predict that Yanni will kick clutch game-winning field goals that will fly through the "november sky", land "on sacred ground" after splitting the uprights, and realize "one man's dream". One can only Dare to Dream that one day Texas fans will reminisce about games when "once upon a time" Yanni's kicking leg produced "a night to remember", and that as long as he was on the team close games would not be decided "until the last moment". (Did we just shatter the record for Yanni references in a BON story? Would it have even taken more than one to do that?)

Though Sailer has recently said Yanni's kickoffs "are coming along nicely" (after previously saying they "need to improve"), a look at his Hudl highlights shows him consistently booming kickoffs deep into the end zone, if not over and out of it. The camera doesn't follow the ball very well on the kickoff clips, but when the kick returner finally enters the screen he's either five yards deep in the end zone or taking a knee most of the time. It's actually Yanni's vaunted field goal-kicking ability that isn't seen much in his sophomore highlight video (which can also be viewed on YouTube). He only attempted five field goals in the 2011 season (making three), so he doesn't yet have much of an in-game track record to evaluate.

Last week I got in touch with Yanni Routsas and through an exchange of messages I learned the following:

* He started playing football in 7th grade, and though he spent some time in 8th and 9th grade as a receiver, he has primarily been a kicker throughout his football career. He began playing soccer at age 4 and also played basketball for several years, but quit both sports in the past two years to focus on football.

* He shared some of the placekicking duties with a senior in 2011 but will have the job all to himself in 2012, and he will also handle punting duties.

* He only made three field goals in 2011, but one of them was a 50-yarder (which he kicked in a loss to defending 5A state champions Pearland). He believes his longest field goal made in practice was from 58 yards out. Rght now he feels confident out to around the 45-50 yard range, and thinks he'll be more consistent by the end of the summer. (Keep in mind he still has two football seasons and two summers to improve his craft before he has his first college practice.)

* In a recent picture he posted on his Twitter page, Yanni is seen in a burnt orange jersey shaking hands with one Mack Brown. When I asked about that picture, he said he attended UT's June 11 camp, which was designated as a Kicking & Long Snapping Camp. He said the coaches there didn't say much to him aside from asking what school he attended, but one coach told him he was one of the top 2014 kickers in attendance.

* He he did not have a favorite school growing up and does not seem to have a clear favorite right now. He said he attended UT's June 11 camp because Texas "is one of the schools I would like to play football for". He also likes Texas A&M and Rice and has visited both. UT, A&M and Rice appear to be his top three favorites.

* He wants to major in engineering, and if he gets offered by all three of the aforementioned schools his decision will likely come down to which engineering program he likes best. If none of them offer him, he won't lack for choices, as he has very good grades and says he has gotten mail from many other schools.

* I mentioned the NCAA's rule change from earlier this year which moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line and asked if he had ever practiced kicking off from that distance. He said he had not but when he kicks off from the 40, "the ball usually ends in the back of the endzone", so he's confident that he won't have a problem reaching the end zone kicking off from five yards farther back.

I'm a fan of the kid. He's got very good natural kicking ability and his grades, his preferred college major, and his evaluation from Chris Sailer Kicking all suggest he has a solid work ethic. He'll be a sought-after player for his placekicking, and perhaps just as much (if not more) for his punting. He likes Texas and if the Longhorns are among the programs seeking his signature, they'll be in a very good position to get it. Whether or not he - or any other kicker - is targeted by UT for their 2014 class could depend on what shape the kicking game is in at the end of this season. But Yanni Routsas is definitely a player to watch, and if Texas ultimately doesn't pursue him he'll still almost certainly end up on the roster of an FBS program.

[Answer to the earlier question on which three Longhorn kickers have been voted to an All-Big 12 Team: Hunter Lawrence (2nd Team, 2009), Kris Stockton (2nd Team, 1999 and 2000), and Phil Dawson (2nd Team, 1997; 1st Team, 1996)]