Nystrom kicks Gophers up a notch

David La

Dan Nystrom is everywhere.
The Sports Illustrated photograph of Nystrom’s game-winning field goal against Penn State is featured on promotional materials, the media guide cover and billboards around town.
Football coach Glen Mason has long used the word monumental to describe the day a program goes from a loser to a winner, and beating the Lions completed the Gophers transformation.
Which means the shot of Nystrom’s 32-yard kick at Beaver Stadium will be forever linked with Minnesota’s breakthrough 1999 season.
“It blows my mind, the impact that (win) had on the University,” Nystrom said. “It was a total team effort. It came down to me for the last kick, but the team busted their butts to get us into that position.”
In the 2000 season, the program’s advertising slogan, “We’ve kicked it up a notch,” gives a special nod to the special teams and a statement that the team is ready to bust their collective butts once again.
In 1999, Nystrom set a school record for points in a season (92) as a freshman surrounded by seniors. But those seniors are gone, meaning some major retooling of the special teams will be necessary for success this season.
Whenever Nystrom, a Sporting News second-team freshman All-America last year, lined up to kick, the steady snaps of Derek Rackley and hands of holder Ryan Rindels gave him a mental edge.
Rindels, also the Gophers punter, was named to Sports Illustrated’s All-Bowl team, while Rackley is having a solid training camp with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
“I think I got spoiled last year,” Nystrom said. “I came in with a holder that had years of experience and a snapper that went on to play professional ball. I didn’t have to worry about them at all. I just had to worry about doing my job.”
Nystrom went about doing his job, hitting 17-of-21 field goals and 41-of-43 extra points, contributing at least five points in each game and carrying into the 2000 season a streak of 13-straight field goals made.
Nystrom also earned a share of the Big Ten special teams player of the week award on consecutive weeks.
This spring, Nystrom worked extensively with Val Zemke (snapper) and Preston Gruening (holder) to ensure successful execution of extra points and field goals. Nystrom is sensing good things ahead for his new duo.
“I think they could be just as good as Rackley and Rindels,” Nystrom said.
While Nystrom solidifies the kicker position for the Gophers, he doesn’t punt. Gruening, Ben Utecht and Travis Cole have the ability, but none have punted in a game. These facts concern Mason greatly.
“The punting situation really bothers me because I have to see a guy do it in a game,” Mason said. “I’ve got to see him do it in all kinds of conditions. I’ve got to see him do it on the two-yard line coming out of the end zone. And we don’t have a guy that’s done that yet.”
The coach sees the punting game as the team’s “biggest concern”.
“It’s the only play that can consistently average 40 yards of field position,” Mason said.
Additionally, Mason called the teams’ penalty-plagued kickoff return unit an “embarrassment”, and is concerned about developing new kick and punt returners.
All the indecision and lack of experience leaves Nystrom the focus of the special teams, just like the infamous Penn State photograph.
But who better to put pressure on than a player whose few plays per game can directly affect the outcome?
“This year I feel like I’ve gotten ahold of my kicking and I’m very confident with everything that I’m doing,” Nystrom said. “Along with that goes being confident in your snapper and holder, which is happening. We’ve been working a lot over the summer. It’s all starting to come together and we’re getting ready for game time.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]