Two weeks ago, I got a really depressing email from my Victorian Literature professor. Without quoting him verbatim, it was a personal message from him telling me to “step my game up.” My performance in class hadn’t been up to par and, seeing as I took one of his classes last semester, he was fully aware of my capabilities. There are probably countless instances in which USC fans have wanted to tell their football team the exact same thing. For fans familiar with the game, there’s no place where this message would be more fitting than USC’s special teams.
In the game of football, perhaps the least-appreciated unit is special teams. In the college game, the prevailing assumption is that these players are younger, less experienced and altogether less skilled than their defensive and offensive counterparts. The most notable exception to this rule is usually the kick returner, and USC is no different — for the earlier part of the season, that title went to junior wide receiver Marqise Lee and later sophomore wide receiver Nelson Agholor.
But the play of special teams all begins with the kicker. The kick determines the movement of the other 21 players on the field. Junior Andre Heidari has been the placekicker for the Trojans since his freshman year. This season, the Trojans’ special teams have been anything but special — and it’s been Heidari who has been at the center of the team’s criticism. His 43-yard miss against Washington State probably cost the Trojans the game, and his misses from 40 and 46 yards against Notre Dame severely hurt the Trojans in South Bend.
So what’s eating Andre Heidari? It’s hard to put a finger on the exact point. Heidari tore his meniscus early in his sophomore year and has struggled to regain his confidence since. After notching a preposterous 15 of 17 in his freshman year, he put up a pedestrian 10 of 16 in his second season.
Two weeks ago, USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron announced that the placekicker’s job was an open competition. The coach’s decision was telling. It’s indicative of his leadership mentality. Orgeron is the all-too-willing facilitator of the Darwinistic microcosm that exists within any organized sports team. Make the walk-ons, junior Craig McMahon and sophomore Alex Wood, nip at Heidari’s heels. Though it’s doubtful either presented a serious threat, the approach seems to have worked, at least temporarily.
Heidari responded last week in the game against Utah, knocking in a career-high four field goals from 35, 38, 28 and 40 yards. But something about his performance still leaves room for doubt. Heidari will need to be consistent from long distances to regain the complete trust of the team. More importantly, he plays an integral role in USC’s offense this year. Some of USC’s most daunting opponents lie ahead, including a matchup against hard-hitting Stanford at home and, of course, the season finale against UCLA.
The Trojans haven’t been finishing drives with touchdowns as often this season, as the game against Utah revealed. Giving the Trojans a long-distance field goal kicking option changes the way opposing defenses play the Trojans. And though the Trojans should always be pushing for a touchdown, it’s always comforting to have a solid kicker to put three points on the board in the event the offensive line doesn’t hold up.
More than ever, it’s become urgent for Heidari to become a reliable source of scoring for the Trojans if USC expects to have any realistic expectation of salvaging the season and, perhaps, capturing the Pac-12 South.
The kicker sets the tone for special teams, but in many ways it can set the tone for the rest of the team as well. Heidari’s role on the team is to show poise in situations of immeasurable duress. In an interview with Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register, Heidari himself put it best when he described kicking as: “90 percent mental, 10 percent technique and everything else.”
Orgeron sent Heidari an implicit message to “step his game up.” Last Saturday, Heidari demonstrated why people believed he was capable of doing more. Prior to the Trojans’ game against Oregon State, Heidari has made 10 of 16 field goals: that equals his total mark from last year.
Time will only tell if he’s able to finish on a higher note and “step his game up.” But like my situation with the Victorian Literature class, something tells me both of us eventually will.
“Euno, It’s Saturday…” runs every other Friday. To comment on this story, email Euno at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.