Nystrom and Gruening: Our kicking must improve

by Kate Silver

Not a great deal of prodding was necessary to get Minnesota football players Dan Nystrom and Preston Gruening to flat-out admit they’re not playing up to their abilities this season.

“I need to make some improvements,” Nystrom, the Gophers field goal kicker, said.

“I’m disappointed with my performance,” Gruening, the punter, said. “My consistency is bad and I’m not hitting the ball solid.”

As returning starters to the Gophers special teams unit, Nystrom and Gruening were both expected to carry on their roles without adding any worries to a team full of questions.

But through three games, the pair of legs haven’t lived up to expectations.

Nystrom, the Big Ten leader in scoring by a kicker last season, has connected on just three of eight field goal attempts this year.

Gruening, a preseason Playboy All-American who led the nation in punting during the regular season last year, is averaging 39.8 yards per punt in 2001 – almost five yards less than a season ago.

“Dan and I just need to get our confidence back,” Gruening said. “We both know we’re a good kicker and punter – and we need to be back against Illinois.”

While Gruening’s punting hasn’t directly affected Minnesota’s ability to win, Nystrom’s inconsistencies played a huge role in the Gophers 35-28 overtime loss to Purdue last weekend.

The junior missed two field goals against the Boilermakers. Nailing just one could have adverted the Gophers loss.

“The only back-up option we have is Gruening; we may have to explore that,” coach Glen Mason said, adding freshman Ryan Duffy is not a candidate for playing time.

The last time the pair competed for the starting field goal kicking job was 1999 when Nystrom edged Gruening, thus handing the latter kick-off duties.

Mason also said wide receivers coach Richard Wilson asked to work with Nystrom more closely in hopes of reversing the kicker’s fortune.

Wilson has experience dealing with kickers dating back to his days at Clemson when he worked with future NFL player Chris Gardocki. Wilson said Nystrom’s problems are minor, centering around confidence and fundamentals.

“When guys starts missing their kicks, everybody looks for something astronomical,” Wilson said. “But it may be something as simple as planting your foot in the same place every time.”

Coaches are hoping Nystrom’s desire will carry him out of the slump. But what Nystrom really wants is reassurance from Mason that he’s the guy for the job.

“For Mason to say he is going to stick with me is what I want to hear,” Nystrom said. “Obviously I want to be the kicker. That’s the position I have on this team and I want to keep it.

“I am going to be confident no matter what. That is the nature of my position, I have to be confident.”

And i’s unlikely Gruening will be kicking field goals in Nystrom’s place on Saturday.

“Nobody has mentioned (field goal kicking) to me,” Gruening said. “Maybe if I was punting better it might enter the coaches’ minds, but right now I really need to focus on my punting while Dan focuses on his kicking.”

Although Gruening said it wouldn’t take him long to get back into field goal mode, he said Nystrom is a far better kicker than he is – despite the recent misses.

Gruening doesn’t know if he’s trying too hard or thinking too much, but he does know
adjustments must be made in order to regain last year’s form.

“I have punted a thousand footballs, so I know I can do it,” Gruening said. “If I have to change my technique I will, because whatever I am doing right now isn’t working.”

While the missed field goals against Purdue were no joke, at least one person involved in the situation is taking a light-hearted approach.

“Maybe Dan should start punting, and I should start kicking,” Gruening said. “I don’t know.”

If the struggles continue, the scenario might just happen.