MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When West Virginia place-kicker Josh Lambert was a bony seventh-grader booming soccer balls in Texas, a phys-ed teacher suggested he try out for the football team.
It hardly felt like a career-defining moment.
“I didn’t really like football at the time,” Lambert recalled. “But I thought about it for a little while, and thought what the heck.
“I certainly didn’t ever think I would be here.”
Six short years later, the WVU redshirt freshman is competing to replace Tyler Bitancurt, who departed as the school’s second-leading all-time scorer, and that competition appeared to have been decided when Dana Holgorsen opened fall camp proclaiming “Josh Lambert is our kicker.” Before Wednesday’s sixth practice, however, special-teams coach Joe DeForest wasn’t ready to pronounce Lambert the starter.
“He’s never kicked in a game before,” DeForest said, “and I think that says it all.”
Actually, that says it all about every place-kicker on West Virginia’s roster, none of whom has taken aim at the uprights in a college game. Yet DeForest’s reluctance to hand the job to anyone three weeks before the opener is understandable. There are too many days left for DeForest to stress-test his kickers by simulating “as violent and volatile a crowd as we can get.”
He does this by piping in clamor from the stadium speakers and having his guys attempt kicks with the team tightly gathered around them. It’s the equivalent of letting the student section encircle the free-throw shooter.
Lambert accepts the pressure.
“Everyone’s eyes are on you,” he said. “And if you miss you have to be able to bounce back.”
Once Lambert opened his junior season at Garland High with three 50-yard kicks in the first three games, he began to think “maybe I could do it in college.”
He received letters from several schools, including Oklahoma, but lamented that “letters don’t really mean a whole lot,” and they certainly don’t equate to scholarships. His major-college interest was limited to a grayshirt offer at Louisiana Tech and a walk-on invite at Texas A&M, making the prospects of a full ride at WVU sort of a no-brainer.
And what was his biggest adjustment during his first year on campus as an anonymous backup?
“The hills,” he said. “In Texas you can basically look in the distance and see where you’re going to end up driving. Then you come here and you can’t see around the corner.”
ARE KICKERS PLAYERS, TOO?
Not so long ago many college programs declined to allot scholarships to kickers, but DeForest said his philosophy changed when Florida State endured its series of “wide-right” misfires again Miami in the 1980s.
“What makes a kicker less important than a right guard?” he said. “Kickers put points on the board.”
After enduring a difficult one-year term as WVU’s defensive coordinator, DeForest remains associated head coach, but he spends practices completely devoted to special-teams. By his estimation, there are only 12 FBS programs in the country that have such a specialized coach.
“Most of the time you do special-teams period first and then you send the kickers off to another field with a bag of balls and say ‘Go kick.’ Would you do that with your corners or your receivers? No. Someone’s got to guide them, right?”
Longtime WVU beat writers still chortle over Don Nehlen’s kickers spending portions of practices shooting pool in the players lounge, and Lambert admitted such a mindset existed at Garland. However, the kid who has never kicked in a college game appreciates the extra set of eyes and the discipline DeForest provides.
Lambert said he feels consistent on field goals extending to 53 to 54 yards, “but if you go much past that, it’s hit-and-miss.”
And what about his max range for a last-second, desperation prayer? “Probably 59-60, but wind comes into play.”
Though Lambert’s leg is strong enough to handle kickoffs, DeForest would prefer that role be earned by a guy like Mike Molinari, the holder and backup punter.
“I’m thinking about not putting the extra workload on (Lambert) if he’s not going to be head and shoulders above anybody else,” DeForest said. “It’s a lot different leg swing, it’s a lot harder on your plant foot and it’s harder on your groin. That’s the most difficult and the most pounding your legs take.”
If Lambert does wind up kicking off, he’s not worried about the collisions involved in covering downfield.
“I’ve made a few tackles,” he said, “but I’ve also gotten blasted too.”