Finding Your Golf Bag: Ben Sauls Looking Forward to Special Teams Competition
A good kicker, much like a good golfer, doesn’t have just one kick — one club. He has a bag of kicks, much like a golfer has a bag of clubs, and it’s constantly expanding. At least, Ben Sauls’ bag is ever-growing.
“There’s the basic, standard form of kicking, and then everyone else has a little touch to it,” Sauls said. “They have a little spin of it. I like to just create a golf bag of guys that I see. Justin Tucker is a big one, that’s an obvious name. Harrison Butker, I watch Harrison Butker. I’m a big Alex Kessman fan, that’s a major one right there. There’s a lot of guys I watch just to see what they’re doing.”
When it comes to kicking off, in which Sauls earned his first real taste in 2021, special teams coach Andre Powell has a very direct way of measuring a good kick. It’s in-between the hashes and has no less than a 3.8-second hang time — “3.8 would be at the lowest,” he said. “3.8 is the standard. If it’s anything below 3.8 then it’s considered a pretty bad kickoff for us.” Some coaches want their kickers to pin kicks in the corner, which Sauls admitted can be difficult but certainly doable, and he enjoys the freedom in Pitt’s system.
Especially blowing kicks directly out the back of the end zone. With 104 kick offs in 2021, 44 were touchbacks. Just about 42% of his kicks, averaging 62.4 yards per kick.
Sauls’ first ever kick off, the first of the year against Massachusetts in 2021, was struck thoroughly — courtesy of a ton of adrenaline running through his system. It went 81 yards, right through the back of the end zone, with a 4.3-second hang time. It’s an imprecise art, but nothing in the world of kicking is ever perfect. That doesn’t stop a pursuit of perfection though.
“We’re chasing perfection,” Sauls said. “We know that’s not going to happen, but that’s a great goal to be chasing constantly.”
Sauls, one of three kickers competing for playing time in a very competitive special teams room at Pitt, handled every one of Pitt’s kickoffs last season. Sam Scarton, who emerged as an All-ACC third teamer, served as Pitt’s placekicker last season, and Caleb Junko is pushing both Sauls and Scarton in open competition.
“I don’t think it was surprising last year; I think we expected to score a lot,” Sauls said. “It was interesting splitting up kicks. I was kicking off and (Scarton) was doing field goals, and I thought we both had a great season last year. We make each other better and even throw in Caleb Junko. We have three really good kickers and constant competition mows out the weak. So far all three of us have stepped up.”
Scarton converted 17-of-21 field goals and 69-of-72 extra points last season as a walk-on kicker, and he wasn’t officially named the starting placekicker until just before Pitt’s Week 1 matchup against UMass. And it’s the same sort of competition that Sauls expects throughout the rest of training camp this year. If one thing is clear, it’s that the best will play.
“Sam and I were so tight throughout camp, and after they decided to go with Sam, made a great choice, Sam had a phenomenal job last year,” Sauls said. “Put me on kickoffs, I thought I did a decent job, much room to improve, but overall, it was just breeding competition.”
And the competition isn’t just exclusive to the kickers either. With Cal Adomitis — to the NFL — and Kirk Christodoulou both moving on, a new long snapper and punter will take the field this season.
Sauls said that with Byron Floyd in place as Adomitis’s replacement, with all due respect to Adomitis, the special teams unit hasn’t missed a beat. Floyd throws gas and consistently hits his spots, Sauls said, and James Fineran is pushing him every step of the way. And with Sam Vander Haar holding for Scarton and Cam Guess for Sauls, the punting battle is continuing this summer too.
“(Vander Haar and Guess) are competing as well, so in regards to the specialist room, there’s a lot of competition going on right now,” Sauls said.
Vander Haar is a true freshman early enrollee from Australia, someone who is still adjusting the rigors of college football, and Guess is a redshirt sophomore who served as a holder in one game last season.
When it comes to the special teams room in 2022, with so much competition at every position, Sauls isn’t worried about who plays what and where. He acknowledged that everyone in the room has their own goals and ambitions, but he knows one area that everyone feels exactly the same heading forward into the season.
“I just want to get better every day,” Sauls said. “I can say the same for Sam, same for Caleb as well.”