Who will kick for the Gophers this fall? That has been one of the biggest questions for the program as the 2013 season approaches. Coaches and players continue to reiterate that the spot is wide open, but senior Chris Hawthorne currently has an edge as the only kicker with college game experience.
"Chris has kicked at another school as a young player," head coach Jerry Kill said. "He's kicked here. He's been through a lot in his career. He can be a great role model, a great teacher for the young guys who come in. I think that whole group in general has worked hard, and he's done a nice job."
Hawthorne, who transferred from N.C. State before the 2011 season, kicked in seven games that year before suffering an injury. In 2012, Jordan Wettstein took all but two kicks for the Gophers. But still, Hawthorne remembers how it feels to kick in pressure situations.
"Somebody's got to step up and prove that they're going to take that job," Kill said.
Freshmen Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte are Hawthorne's challengers. At 6-5 and 260 pounds, Santoso does not look like the typical kicker, and he can get quite a bit of power into his kicks. While Santoso is a scholarship player and Harte is a walk-on, Harte has also proven so far in camp that he belongs in the mix.
More than one of the trio could see action this season. Kill said he would consider using different kickers for field goals and kickoffs.
For now, the position battle continues. Hawthorne said that one of the keys to practice is putting pressure on himself. It also helps when teammates stand in front of the kickers and yell during field goals.
"Coach always talks about treating every practice like it's a game," Hawthorne said. "It's not about the amount of reps. It's about making reps count."
Hawthorne went to a kicking camp this summer, and also worked with a specialist coach. At the camp, he was one of the top performers in a field goal contest.
"It felt good, but at the same time, there's no pads on out there," he said. "There's no people flying at your legs. So it doesn't really mean that much. But just from a confidence perspective, it meant a lot."
Hawthorne, Santoso and Harte are all kicking with confidence in practice right now. Any of the three could take that first kick against UNLV on Aug. 29.