Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson has picked up where he left off at the end of the 2012 season. Williamson, who made five of his final six field goal attempts last year, including critical boots at Oregon, in the Pac-12 Championship, and in the Rose Bowl, has been on the mark so far this spring.
According to Stanford special teams coach Pete Alamar, Williamson is making field goals at an 89 percent clip (as of earlier this week). He connected on a 55-yarder earlier this spring, a kick Alamar estimates "probably was good from 62, 63."
"His development has been great," Alamar said. "We had a few things going into spring that we targeted that we really wanted to work on. One was just making sure that we were exact in our set-ups, really working on our set-ups and our areas and how we align all over the field. Both hashes, tight, deep, all that. So it starts there.
"The next thing was the perfect plant. And the plant foot, right width, and just really dialing his plant foot in. He's got tremendous leg strength. He's got tremendous speed through the ball. And then it's really trying to refine the finish. Those are the things we're working in on spring. He's done a great job."
Williamson is the only proven kicker on the roster, but not the only capable one. Though he takes the majority of his reps at punter, freshman Conrad Ukropina has emerged as Williamson's backup.
"Conrad, from a technique, fundamental standpoint and everything is our second-best guy," Alamar said. "But he's not doing as much of that. We're probably 75-25 punt to kick and that's intentional. Because they're two different leg swings completely and I want to give him every opportunity as a punter."
Ukropina is currently competing with redshirt junior Ben Rhyne to replace Daniel Zychlinski, who had a tremendous 2012 season for the Cardinal. The competition will likely continue into fall camp.
"I think with the punters or kickers, anytime you have a competition like that, more than likely the job's not going to get won in the spring," Alamar said. "You might have a guy that has a little bit of a leg up on one or the other, but it's got to push to fall camp and you have to put them in some live situations in camp to really let them go and grow. See how they work. Spring is a chance to say this where you're at, this is where the other guys's at. Now what are you going to do in the summertime in the next four months before we come back together?"
Ukropina and Rhyne have distinct strengths and weaknesses.
"Ben is a little bit longer-levered," Alamar said. "He's got longer legs from the hip to the toe. Conrad's a little more compact. Both of them are two-step guys, both of them are very economical. As far as operation times with both of them, they're in a great place."
"For Conrad it's all about staying repeatable with his drop and just getting up nice and smooth through his swing. He has a tendency to sometimes drive the ball, so we want to increase his hangtime, and just get him consistent with his drop. If you don't have a consistent drop you can't be a good punter. And right now, there are times when his drop is money, and there's times where he's a little big wiggle waggle with it and it's inside or it's outside. So just locking him in there.
"Ben has hit some nice balls and has had some really nice days, but consistency still... Ben sometimes (hits) a little bit across the ball, so he's a little right to left with it. He cuts the ball sometimes. That's one of the things he's been working on. He hits a little better hangtime ball right now than Conrad. And so because of that, he doesn't put the coverage team in as much peril as sometimes Conrad does with it. Conrad hit one today that was a rocket at about 56, 57, but it was closer to 4.2 hangtime than 5.2 hangtime."
Ultimately, Alamar said that the goal for each player is to achieve a greater level of consistency.
"Neither of those guys has really jumped out and said, 'Hey, consistently I'm a guy day in and day out' yet," Alamar said. "Both of them show flashes of brilliance.
"What we're trying to do is take our range and tighten it down. So right now you'll have the 32 and the 55. We need that to shrink down to about 38 to 52 with great hangtime. We'd be in a great place. And those are the kicks that we need to get rid. So right now that's both those guys a little bit."
As the incumbent starter, freshman Reed Miller is the clear No. 1 at long snapper, but Alamar said that the position isn't completely set in stone.
"Reed's there, but the understanding is you're only as good as your last snap or your last kick or your last punt," Alamar said. "Reed's the No. 1 guy. We work Reed, we work Austin Tubbs, (he) has gotten better and showed improvement. We work Torsten Rotto and then we work Ben Gardner. Ben throws a nice ball, a hard ball, but he's playing 70 snaps on defense or whatever too. So in a perfect world you don't want that, but you want him there if you need him to finish a game. You feel comfortable about him coming in and protecting and snapping and doing all of the things, so we keep him greased up too."
Several players shared time returning kicks last year, and there's a large field of players vying for return duties again in 2013.
"In the kick return deal, you've got Ty Montgomery, who when he was healthy last year was pretty salty," Alamar said. "You've got Kelsey Young that came on at the end of the year that's got the ability to do that. And then you've got (Tyler) Gaffney, who's come back in and who's a big, strong, powerful guy that's got that in his background, too. You've got Remound Wright, who did some a year ago. Alex Carter has the capability of it. You've got five guys right there that are all solid returners. And when you look at Ty and you look at Gaffney and you look at even Remound, Alex, you've got lower-body strong guys who can run through some stuff and get positive yards for you."
The competition to replace Drew Terrell, one of the best and most reliable punt returners in program history, is also stiff.
"The main guys there, again Ty's worked hard at it," Alamar said. "Barry Sanders has worked hard at it. Kodi Whitfield has come in and done a nice job. Keanu (Nelson) is back now, second half of spring. He was our backup guy last year, came in the UCLA game. So he's caught a couple of balls in there, he's very comfortable back there catching. So we've probably got 4 or 5 guys back there. Gaffney can do that too. We have five guys back there who are all vying for the job, and they all want it, which is a good thing. It's a nice problem to have."