The invisible kicker
MORGANTOWN - Tyler Bitancurt has enjoyed the highs and endured the lows while practicing his craft as a college kicker.
It doesn't get much higher than kicking the winning field goal on the last play of the game against a team's most bitter rival, which he did as a redshirt freshman in 2009. His 43-yarder capped a 4-for-4 night and gave West Virginia a 19-16 win over No. 8 Pitt in the Backyard Brawl.
A few weeks later Bitancurt was named the All-Big East kicker.
On the flip side, it doesn't get much lower than the junior place-kicker's entire 2010 season. Yes, he made 10 field goals and all of his extra points, but things went south in a hurry after that kick against the Panthers. Beginning with the Gator Bowl against Florida State that year and continuing through the 2010 season, he attempted 18 field goals and made just 10. Only one of those misses was from outside 45 yards. Three were from inside 40.
Perhaps the number that most illustrates the frustration is this: Of Bitancurt's five misses during the 2010 regular season (he also had two in the Champs Sports Bowl in addition to the one in the Gator Bowl), four never even had a chance, having been blocked. Marshall, LSU, Louisville and Rutgers each blocked a WVU field goal.
Now, fast-forward to the midpoint of the 2011 season. There have, at least relatively speaking, been no real highs or lows. Bitancurt has not been asked to make any pressure-packed kicks, nor has he booted himself in the rear end with any awful misses or blocks.
Through six games, Bitancurt is 11-for-12 on field goals and 30-for-30 on PATs, and hardly anyone has noticed.
In a way, he's like an umpire or a referee. They say the best are the ones you never notice.
"Exactly,'' Bitancurt said. "My job isn't to be noticed. My job is to put points on the board, and if I'm missing kicks then I'd be noticed. So yeah, it is good not to be noticed.''
Not that he's not appreciated.
When Dana Holgorsen arrived in January and began paying cursory attention to the field goal unit as the team's offensive coordinator, he wasn't impressed with what he saw. Bitancurt and the field goal unit struggled just as much in spring drills as they had in 2010. The problems continued right through the early weeks of preseason camp in August.
Holgorsen, who by then had been elevated to head coach, tried to be patient. Eventually it paid off.
"It was a combination of many things, starting with me and a confidence issue,'' Bitancurt said of the struggles in the spring and preseason camp. "I was getting kicks blocked, I was missing kicks and I had to regain my focus.''
So Bitancurt did a lot of personal work, both mentally and physically, to reverse that trend. But there were also the things he couldn't control as easily, including a new holder, Mike Molinari, and a new scheme up front on the line. All of those things took time to be worked out.
"We had to get [Molinari] comfortable with me and the kick and the snap,'' Bitancurt said. "And there was also the line. That's been coming along well. It's all coming together well.''
Through those first six games, Bitancurt has missed just one kick, an inconsequential 35-yarder early in what would become a 55-10 rout of Norfolk State. He is 4-for-4 inside the 30-yard line and 7-for-8 outside that line. He's made his only two tries outside 40 yards - 43 against Marshall and 45 against Bowling Green.
Eventually, though, he is going to be asked to kick with more on the line than just a routine three points in the course of a game. West Virginia is going to need a big kick under pressure.
That's when Bitancurt will no longer be anonymous, although, if he maintains his composure, nothing should really change.
"You kind of have to look at every kick the same way,'' Bitancurt said. "If it's the first field goal or the first extra point, you don't know how that's going to end up at the end of the game. So every kick's the same.
"Sure, there's a difference between those and maybe a big kick at the end of the game, but you don't really live for those moments. You just prepare and get ready for them.''
One thing has changed recently for Bitancurt, of course. He's no longer just the place-kicker, because in the past two games he also was asked to kick off. He's basically splitting time with Corey Smith, who was the kickoff and punt specialist to start the season but has lost the punting job to Molinari and is in danger of losing the kickoff job to Bitancurt.
Bitancurt kicked off twice at the end of the Bowling Green game two weeks ago, and last week against Connecticut he kicked off three times and Smith five.
"I enjoyed it,'' Bitancurt said of the extra duties. "But I need improvement.''
Well, if practice makes perfect, he and Smith should both improve. West Virginia's offense is scoring so often that there is plenty of practice for both.
"With as many touchdowns as we've been scoring,'' Bitancurt said, "the number of kickoffs will definitely wear any kicker's leg out.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.