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September 8, 2011

Bitancurt’s confidence comes back

MORGANTOWN — People can never really understand how difficult placekicking in football is until they can grasp the one overriding reality of the art — and an art, not a skill, it is.

To watch him operate, the placekicker comes in the game just before a commercial break on TV, be it to attempt an extra point or a field goal, measures his steps and kicks the ball.

That, though, is like saying to create a masterpiece of a portrait in oil, one need only purchase a canvas, oils and a brush, get himself a subject and start painting away.

It doesn’t work that way in either situation, for just as the artist must paint with his mind’s eye, so, too, must the placekicker kick as much with his mind as with his foot.

West Virginia’s Tyler Bitancurt is living proof of this.

Two years ago he owned the state, a freshman who had beaten Pittsburgh with a field goal as time ran out, an accurate, unflappable kicker who had not a care in the world. He finished the year with 13 field goals in 15 tries with a long of 45 yard.

Then, as easily as the kicks came as freshman, his sophomore season saw him slip to 10 of 17 made with a long of 43 yards, his kicks sailing left and right or being blocked. It reached the point that his final four field goal tries of the season were missed and there was talk with a new coach in town that he might even lose his job.

One game into the new season, however, and it appears Bitancurt has given the boot to such thoughts. He established himself in camp as the starting placekicker, and in the opener against Marshall he was 2-for-2 in field goals, including a 43-yard kick that matched his long for all of last season.

What was the difference? Had he adjusted his steps? Had he begun lining things up differently?

No. It simply was a matter of obtaining something he had lost, something you can’t go to the lost and found to reclaim.

He got back his confidence.

“I did a lot of reps over the summer, especially with my new holder (Mike Molanari), so we can both be confident with each other and know how it would feel in a game situation, and that really paid off,” he said.

Normally, when you ask an athlete why he has improved, he has a technical answer. The batter will tell you that he has closed his stance or moved back in the box; the basketball player will say that he is releasing his jump shot more over his head or at the height of his jump.

But in most cases it isn’t really a technical thing, as Bitancurt learned.

“The technique I kept the same. It was confidence and technique for me,” he said. “Confidence is always a question. Obviously, the way I’m kicking now, I feel really good. It’s a confidence thing.”

If the kicker has confidence in himself, the coach tends to feel the same way, and that can change a game around, the coach taking the field goal rather than risking turning the ball over by going for it on fourth-and-3 or so.

In placekicking, the kicker has to be confident that the snap is good, the hold is what he wants, the blocking keeps people out of the backfield long enough, and finally that he has the ability to make the kick.

All of that is in place, perhaps the most important being the blocking for with the new coaching staff came new blocking techniques and that seemed to have worked.

What is not to be overlooked is that Bitancurt may have been the player most affected by the long delays, kicking being what it is.

“It was interesting, a first for me,” he said of the game that took nearly 7 hours and three rain delays to complete.

For the regular players, that might not be too much of a problem. For a kicker to keep his focus that long, when he really is in a game only for a few plays, is tough.

“You have to stay in it mentally. I’m happy with the way I was able to stay focused for that long time. There was a question whether I could do that,” Bitancurt said.

And he was in it right to the bitter end, the final play of the day being his extra point following Vernard Roberts’ fourth-quarter touchdown, an important extra point that gave WVU a 21-point lead.

To be honest, Bitancurt has no idea how many times he had kicked the ball before that with four different warm ups.

He said in normal game he would kick the ball about 100 times, so this was probably closer to his 200th kick of the night.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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