Ben Sauls had never played football before, but when a Tippecanoe High football coach asked if he was able to kick, it wasn’t exactly a new concept.
Sauls had played soccer for most of his childhood, so when he was asked if he wanted to come kick for the football team as a freshman, he said he’d try it out. The balls might’ve been different, but the same science applied to both — make good contact.
And as it turned out, Sauls was actually just as good a football player as a soccer player.
Sauls earned All-State honors as a placekicker, averaging a school-record 43.5 yards per game as a punter for good measure, and he led Tippecanoe to a state title on the pitch. He was a rare scholarship high school kicker, deciding to enroll at Pitt over offers from Boston College, Iowa State, Arkansas and Georgia Tech.
After, of course, de-committing from Boston College initially, committing to Iowa State because Pitt hadn’t offered him a full scholarship and eventually de-committing from ISU and committing to Pitt after forcing Narduzzi’s hand to earn an offer.
There wasn’t an opportunity to start over incumbent Alex Kessman as a freshman, bit he entered his second season in Pittsburgh as the lone scholarship kicker on the roster — and yet Pitt’s backup kicker.
It was after two missed extra points against New Hampshire in Pitt’s fourth game of the 2021 season that Sauls started to question himself.
“It took a bunch of failures to realize that ‘Hey, man, maybe you’re not the guy you thought you were.’ When it comes down to the mental game and when you have negative thoughts, positive self-talk is extremely important,” Sauls said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “You’ve gotta be positive with yourself. At the end of the day, you’ve only gotta live with one person and that’s yourself.”
Sam Scarton took all but Sauls’ two missed extra points last season, earning third-team All-ACC honors for his efforts, but Scarton and Sauls entered the offseason in open competition, nonetheless.
On a Pat Narduzzi-coached football team, every position is in open competition in the offseason. It’s the name of the game. But it was still a surprise when Narduzzi, on an afternoon in late August, announced that Sauls would serve as Pitt’s starting placekicker and kickoff specialist.
Sauls believed in himself, kept that calm confidence and started off the 2022 season with a perfect performance in a 38-31 win over West Virginia in the season opener. The perfection, however, didn’t last long.
Pitt hosted Tennessee the following week, a ranked matchup at Acrisure Stadium, and while Sauls was perfect in his three point-after attempts, he only went 2-of-4 in his field goal attempts — in a narrow 38-31 overtime loss. Two costly misses. Yet Narduzzi never wavered in his support, and Sauls never wavered in his self-confidence.
“A little kick in the butt right there actually,” Sauls said. “Really, I looked back on the film and it kinda just came down to finishing the ball — finishing my kick. The Tennessee game, both those missed left, so on the film, technical-wise, you can tell my leg kinda just stayed open. I left it open, kinda scared to miss, so my attitude has been different. I’m trying to kick it through the uprights, just finish through the ball.”
Tennessee was an opportunity to learn. It stung in the moment, for everyone, but a kicker can only learn in those situations. In fact, as Sauls said, kickers learn far more from misses than makes.
However, he missed a short 27-yarder against Western Michigan the following week. The two makes from 48 and 23 yards out, weren’t the story. The story — despite the good — was another miss. A 4-of-7 stretch in which Sauls wasn’t as accurate as he needed to be.
But while there were calls for Scarton to resume his duties as the kicker, Sauls didn’t see it in the same way. He may have been competing against Scarton all throughout the offseason, have felt the experienced kicker breathing down his neck, but it wasn’t a battle between two kickers. It was a battle between Sauls and himself.
“It’s you against you, it doesn’t really matter what anybody else is doing, especially on game day,” Sauls said. “You’re going out to kick the ball, it doesn’t matter if you’re up by 50 or down by 50, you’re still kicking the ball. It’s the same thing over and over and over again. Alex Kessman really drove into me one for one, over and over again.”
The 5-of-8 stretch to open the season has slowly slid out of sight in the rearview mirror as Sauls has grown into his consistency. He hasn’t been called upon for a heavy workload or clutch kick, but he hasn’t missed since the second quarter of the Western Michigan game in September either.
Sauls hasn’t always been relied upon to deliver, attempting just one field goal in each of the last four games, but he’s nailed each one. And he’s connected on 34-of-34 point-after attempts, too.
It’s been a complete 180-degree turn after last season, losing the starting job to Scarton and missing his only point-after attempts in the process, but the expectation he’s held upon his shoulders hasn’t changed.
“You are what you tell yourself, and I think I’m pretty decent at what I do, to be honest, I think I’m really good at what I do,” Sauls said. “And when you put it together, you get good results like the last few weeks.”
Sauls is 10-of-13 this season, with a long of 48 yards (and a trust level of about 55 yards from the coaching staff), and he’s perfect from the extra point hash.
The shift hasn’t resulted from a change in approach. Sauls sees himself as the same kicker he was last season. It may have been the struggles that sharpened him, both last season and this season, into the player — and person — that he’s become today.
But while Sauls doesn’t see himself in a new light, special team’s coordinator Andre Powell certainly does.
“I think for Ben, it’s been more mental than anything,” Powell said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “From the time he got here until now, he’s really grown up, he’s really matured, some of the peripheral things don’t bother him. Things that used to bother him.
“Players mature, they learn how to prepare themselves, and he has certainly done that.”
Sauls has grown and matured at Pitt, certainly, and while he’s been tutored by the likes of Powell and Kessman as a younger player in the system, he’s also watched plenty of the pros in the NFL. Players like Justin Tucker and Harrison Butker — the two most accurate kickers in NFL history — have provided plenty of inspiration.
“You can watch guys like (Justin Tucker) and Butker, they all have their own methods and swag to them, and I think when you collect that and put it together for yourself to kinda figure out what you do and what’s comfortable for you, it really works,” Sauls said.
Tucker, in particular, has been an inspiration. After a recent performance — nailing four field goals from 37, 58, 25 and eventually 43 yards for a walk-off victory — to lift the Baltimore Ravens to a 19-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, he spoke to the system he operated in. For the NFL’s all-time leader in both accuracy and distance, it was a message that Sauls took to heart.
There is a lot of time for reflection, to dwell on what could go wrong, for a kicker. Each and every kick after all is just about 1.3 seconds. But if Sauls has learned one thing from Tucker, it’s to block out the negative and embrace the positive.
When Sauls lines up for a field goal, his mind is at ease. Cam Guess is a lights-out holder, and Byron Floyd is an amazing long-snapper. He’s already honed in on his steps, contact and follow-through, all he has to do is execute.
“You’re gonna have bad days,” Sauls said. “The goal is to stack good days, but we know bad days happen, so getting through that, that’s how you stay loose and keep performing.”