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Kickers give Ducks big leg up on competition

Punting has been especially strong for Pac-12 champs
by: ERIC EVANS 
Oregon punter Jackson Rice is part of a kicking game that could play a key role against Wisconsin in the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl.

EUGENE —Kickers are like baseball closers —they can lock down a victory or erase everything the rest of the team has done. The Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks have three kickers, all from California, who have seen their failures grab a lot of attention and had their success often swept under the rug. Still, punter Jackson Rice, place-kicker Alejandro Maldonado and kickoff specialist Rob Beard know how important each role is, even if some don’t notice. “All the media headlines, that’s what people see,” Rice says. “But, when I have success, I know it and my teammates know it. The same with Rob and Alejandro.” The Oregon offense once again put up big numbers this season, and the defense was usually solid. Rice, meanwhile, had perhaps the finest individual season of anyone. On 45 punts, he averaged 45.8 yards, with 16 punts going more than 50 yards and another 16 downed inside the 20-yard line. Rice, a 6-3, 225-pound junior from Moraga Calif., says that the biggest differences between this season and last year, when he averaged 42.3 yards per punt, were his leg strength and consistency. “My leg power is up a lot,” he says. “A 55-yarder before might be a 64-yarder now. But consistency is the big thing as a punter. Everyone around has a big leg. It’s who can do it every time.” Rice did get some recognition when he traveled to Disney World in Orlando for ESPN’s college football awards show. Rice lost the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter to Ryan Allen of Louisiana Tech, a former walk-on at Oregon State. Rice was disappointed for himself and the punt team. “We all want to win every award, and we all want to be first place,” he says. “But I wanted to win that for our punt team. I felt that award would’ve reflected the great job they’ve done this year. They’re the best punt team in the nation.” The one blemish on Rice’s season was a blocked punt that came at a critical moment in the Ducks’ loss to USC. The hardest part of moving past the moment was keeping himself from rushing subsequent punts. “When you get a punt blocked, you have a tendency to start rushing the ball and trying to get it off as fast as you can,” Rice says. “You’ve got to move on and try to look forward.” Prior to his college career, Rice also played quarterback, tight end and linebacker. Getting to be the holder for Maldonado and run some of the Ducks’ trick plays has helped Rice feel more like a football player than just a punter. “Playing football to me is playing all the other positions,” Rice says. “Punting doesn’t always fulfill that football playing. Getting to do the holding is a lot of fun.” Maldonado, a 5-10, 195-pound sophomore from Colton Calif., had his biggest failure of the season in the same game as Rice. The Ducks had a chance to tie USC in the waning seconds, but Maldonado missed a 37-yard field-goal attempt, ending Oregon’s chances of returning to the national title game. “From the USC game, I learned really quickly that you have to have a strong mentality no matter what,” Maldonado says. “It’s really a mental thing for specialists.” This year, Maldonado is 71 of 72 on PATs and 6 of 11 on field goals, with a long of 40 yards. “We’ve had some misses here and there,” Rice says, “but he’s come back the next day and worked hard to try to fix those mistakes. He’s a phenomenal player, and he’s done a great job for us.” Maldonado may have never been in that situation against USC if Beard had not been injured earlier in the year. Beard, a 6-0, 225-pound junior from Fullerton, Calif., was Oregon’s starting kicker last season, making 10 of 13 field goals and 63 of 64 PATs. In the 2011 opener against LSU, Beard knocked in both of his field-goal attempts and all three PATs. Beard spent last summer working harder than ever, but he says he overworked his leg. A quadriceps injury sidelined him for the Ducks next six games. “I had that starting spot, and I worked really hard for it,” Beard says. “I just kind of outkicked my leg and it messed up the muscle I need to kick.” When he returned to the field, Beard took over the kickoff duties. On 42 kickoffs, he has averaged 62 yards, with one touchback. Beard has continued rehabbing his leg so that next season he can compete with Maldonado for the place-kicker job. “I’m not bitter about it at all,” Beard says, of losing the position. “I’m not angry about it. I’m really there for him, trying to support him, trying to get him to do the best he can do because it’s going to help our team in the end.” Of all the kickers, Beard has the most limited role. But, like Rice and Maldonado, Beard knows that what he does can make the difference between the Ducks winning and losing when Oregon faces Wisconsin in the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl. “My teammates know, my coaches know, and most important, my family knows,” Beard says. “What’s important for me is the people that I love and that I care about knowing what I’m doing and if they respect me or not. I’m just playing for that respect.”