Minnesota football fans remember Rhys Lloyd making the two biggest kicks of his collegiate career in 2003.
Against Wisconsin with no time remaining on the clock, Lloyd’s 35-yard field goal sailed through the uprights and was followed immediately by Lloyd sprinting to the Badgers’ sideline, snagging Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
The performance was repeated in the Gophers’ Sun Bowl appearance against Oregon, when his 42-yarder with 23 seconds left on the clock gave the Gophers a 31-30 lead and they held on to win.
But at Friday’s annual football Media Day, coach Glen Mason didn’t reflect on the past, touching instead on the Gophers’ new special teams unit.
“We have a new punter, and we have new kickers,” Mason said. “Maybe that’s the bad news. The good news is that they all performed better than I would have expected in spring practice.”
But spring games aren’t Wisconsin with three seconds left in regulation or the Sun Bowl against Oregon, and the new guys realize that.
Still, they said they are up for the different challenges they each face and might even create some extra ones themselves.
Freshmen Justin Kucek and Jason Giannini will be taking over for Lloyd’s dual duties this season, with Kucek punting and Giannini doing the kicking.
Kucek will need to take charge of the field position battle, and he said he thinks he can handle the job.
Last season the Gophers were beat in the punting game, with their opponents having a 38.5-yard net punt average, while the Gophers were at 36.9.
But Kucek is confident that the things he worked on in spring to get himself the starting role will also give the Gophers a leg up on their competition.
“I got my times down with my long snapper and was able to get the ball away pretty quickly,” Kucek said. “I also worked hard on kicking the ball out of bounds and getting better with my pooches.”
With Lloyd basically taking on punting duties by default two years ago – the team even gave tight end Ben Utecht a shot at one point – the Gophers will now have the advantage of using true specialists.
Giannini will also be making his first appearance in Big Ten play, but he said that Lloyd really mentored him to be the starting kicker.
“He really taught us how to relax back there,” Giannini said. “That’s what it’s all about anyways, being able to relax under pressure.”
Now that the job will be his to hold onto, it could come down to being able to handle the pressure and making those clutch, last-second kicks.
“Wisconsin and Michigan are the games I want,” Giannini said. “Oh, and the Ohio State game. I hope every last one of those games comes down to me.”