Sam Ficken and Robbie Gould still text regularly. They talk on the phone sometimes, too.
Gould, the former Penn State kicker in his eighth NFL season, has been a huge support system for Ficken, the 19-year-old who has carried the weight of the Nittany Lion’s special team woes this season.
“He says you’re a good kicker, keep your confidence up,” Ficken said. “You have the ability just settle down, be confident in yourself and kick the ball.”
The advice is simple, but executing it is harder than it sounds. Being Sam Ficken hasn’t been easy over the past two months.
But after Saturday’s 35-23 loss to Ohio State, the Indiana native appeared more composed, more relaxed and perhaps even more wise than he has at any point this season. And he only attempted one kick.
“I kind of dug myself in a hole at the start of the season and I’m trying to climb back out of that,” Ficken said. “With every kick I get, I try to make and I think [coach Bill O’Brien’s] confidence in me builds.”
Ficken is the one who replaced All-Big Ten performer Anthony Fera, who transferred to Texas this offseason. Ficken is the one who missed four of five field goals in Penn State’s 17-16 loss to Virginia. Ficken is the reason O’Brien goes for it on fourth down so often.
On Saturday, O’Brien sent Ficken out only once -- he made a 27-yarder in the third quarter -- and went for it four times on fourth down. Penn State only converted two of the attempts.
That doesn’t irk Ficken, who seems to have adopted a stress-free outlook for a position that attracts individual spotlight.
“Once we get the ball to the 35, I try to get ready and if [O’Brien] calls my number I go out there, and try to make the kick,” Ficken said. “If that doesn’t happen...it doesn’t really bother me.”
It hasn’t happened often. Entering Saturday, Penn State attempted 23 fourth down conversions, by far most in the Big Ten. Meanwhile Ficken is 4-for-11 on the season. Since the Virignia game, he has not attempted more than two in a game.
Ficken’s woes caused a stir on campus, especially after the Virignia game when the 19-year-old missed a game-winning kick at the end of regulation. He was flooded with criticism on Twitter, in person, by people he never met. He says the outrage has calmed down a bit lately. A five-game winning streak -- snapped on Saturday -- probably didn’t hurt, either.
“It’s getting better every week,” Ficken said. “Memories fade. Every week is gradually improving. I got a lot of support that week, and it’s extended on.”
Even still, it appears O’Brien is exploring his options. Punter Alex Butterworth has been practicing kicks at practice, and is the Lions’ new backup according to Ficken.
Butterworth kicked in high school, but “is a bit rusty,” Ficken said.
Ficken said that the longest kick Butterworth has made in practice is 25 yards, but the coaches are easing him back into it.
Kind of like what Ficken has been trying to do lately -- easing back into a groove.