Anyone who follows Penn State Football should know Sam Ficken by now, the young true sophomore who was thrust into the role of starting kicker when Anthony Fera transferred to Texas in early August. However, it was not until missing 5 kicks in PSU’s 17-16 loss at Virginia did he become a household name. Ficken’s continued struggles in kicking the pigskin makes him an easy target for mockery – just about everyone claims to be better kickers these days, but before frat boys start showing up at the practice fields, let’s step back and ask the question — Who is Sam Ficken? Well, I can tell you that Ficken is German for ‘f**k.’ If you don’t believe me – look it up (http://translate.google.com/#de/en/Ficken). Fitting? I’ll let you decide.
In 2011, Samuel James Ficken, cousin of former Purdue hoops star Robbie Hummel, came to Happy Valley from Valparaiso, Indiana following a successful kicking career at Valparaiso High School where he was a 1st team all-state. A former soccer player turned kicker, he never missed an extra point and converted more than 80% of his FG attempts, including 52 yard kick that remains a school record. On top of football, Ficken is pretty smart kid (ACT: 31; GPA: 3.7). Clearly, leg strength and intelligence is not an issue for Ficken.
Ironically, he made his college debut in the season opener against Indiana State, behind then starter Anthony Fera, connecting on his only PAT attempt. He missed his first FG attempt, from 49 yards, at Temple, but would make his second attempt, from 43 yards, against Eastern Michigan. That was it for Ficken in 2011 as Fera took the reigns for the remainder of the season.
Then comes 2012. Following the NCAA sanctions, Ficken made clear he would be staying at Penn State….before Fera announced he was transferring to Texas. Academically, Ficken had been stellar with a 3.46 GPA and Dean’s List recognition. As the season approached, true sophomore Ficken found himself at the number one spot. Was he ready?
The opening game against Ohio University was fairly non-eventual for Ficken, making his two PAT attempts, but no FG attempts. Then comes the Virginia game. Keep in mind, Ficken’s last FG attempt was the year before against Eastern Michigan, an easy win for PSU (34-6). The Virginia game was tight and the pressure was high, especially for Ficken. He was called upon to kick 5 field goals that game, missing 4 of them as well as a PAT that proved to be costly as PSU ended up losing 17-16. Missed FGs on top of the 0-2 start made Ficken a focal point of discussion, with many wondering — should he really be the starter?
Ficken took a lot of heat in the days that followed, understandably so. Missing that many FGs at that level is unacceptable. Ficken knew it, O’Brien knew it. But does it warrant torches and pitchforks? Of course not.
Ficken needs more confidence and that comes with experience. He has the talent, he has the discipline – putting it together may take a few games, maybe a season? The kid is 19 years old and got thrown into the starting role following what some could describe as being one of the most bizarre and troubling off seasons in college sports. Plus, kicking is just as mental if not more mental than the physical ability to kick. What sets great kickers apart from good kickers is being able to make the clutch kicks – the ability to focus among the chaos and pressure. However, it is also the ability to recover, forgetting about the previous kick. Ficken now knows what it feels like to hit rock bottom as a kicker. Perhaps he can use this experience to emerge stronger and improve?
Ficken of course has to continue working hard to prove why he is the starting kicker. Since the Virginia game, it’s clear that O’Brien has no problem keeping his offense on the field for 4th down….even in FG range. You could argue that a reason for the aggressive game plan is the inability to convert FGs on a consistent basis. O’Brien hasn’t given up on Ficken just yet though. While fans, including myself, love the gutsy offense, he knows more than anyone the importance of having a reliable kicking game. Most coaches would’ve benched Ficken after the Virginia game. Not O’Brien. He still makes it clear that the top spot is “up for grabs” but Ficken continues to demonstrate in practice that he is the starting kicker. Translating his talent and skill to game time performance will come with more experience. Getting Ficken those short FG kicks will be the needed confidence booster to establish a consistent kicking game.