Football: Whitaker hitting stride as placekicker in Williamson’s absence

Nov. 11, 2011, 1:52 a.m.

The butt of many a joke, football placekickers are among the most underappreciated players on the roster, right alongside long snappers and holders. When things go well, they usually aren’t noticed. But when a game-winning kick sails wide or a missed extra point costs a team the game, the kicker is going to be the one wearing a bag over his head on campus.


Football: Whitaker hitting stride as placekicker in Williamson's absence
Junior Eric Whitaker (46) hasn't missed a beat after assuming the role of starting placekicker for the Cardinal when starter Jordan WIlliamson went down with an injury two weeks ago. In No. 4 Stanford's triple-overtime win over USC, Whitaker hit two field goals and made all six PATs for the first points of his career. (Michael Liu/The Stanford Daily)

It’s hard out there for a kicker.


But it’s even harder when you’re the backup kicker, and you have to step in with the expectation of perfection all around you. For Eric Whitaker, so far, so good.


The junior from San Diego headed into the season in a fierce competition with redshirt freshman Jordan Williamson for Stanford’s starting kicking job. When Williamson emerged on top and quickly started cemented his place on the team with 11 field goals made in 12 attempts, it got even tougher for Whitaker, who said the hardest part was just not being able to contribute as much as he wanted to the team.


As the younger brother of one of the best Cardinal kickers in recent years–Nate Whitaker ‘13–Eric got to see firsthand the trials and tribulations of the kicking game. But as Eric put it, there was nothing better for him than to have the chance to follow in his brother’s footsteps.


“Having Nate be there for me helped me a lot,” Eric said. “Nate was the person who taught me the most and who really supported me throughout everything. I couldn’t tell you how much it meant to have him here at Stanford, to continue teaching me, to continue coaching me and just be my main source of support. He and I are best friends, and I think I really even started kicking because of him in high school.”


So after Eric lost the job in the summer, he continued to work and continued to try and improve his game as well as those around him. Despite transitioning for a time to play wide receiver, Eric said it has almost always been easier working with other people on their flaws than it has been to find his own.


“To be honest, I think I help other kickers better than I help myself,” Eric said. “I mean, I think I can coach better than I can fix my own problems. Maybe I developed that from Nate, but I just like being able to help the other guy become as good as he can be.”


It is one of the qualities that special teams coordinator Brian Polian saw and appreciated in Eric, because it would soon become extremely important for the team’s success.


Two weeks ago, just before the No. 4 Cardinal was set to take on USC on the road and on national television, Williamson went down with a leg injury and would not be able to kick.


When Whitaker realized he was going to have to step up, there were some initial doubts.


“I won’t lie–at first I was a little nervous,” he said. “It’d been awhile since I’d actually kicked, especially since I had recently been playing a little receiver. But I just thought, now is my time to shine, and it was a great opportunity for me. I knew I had to go out there, relax and just make the most of it.”


In his first collegiate game handling full kicking responsibilities, Whitaker made two field goals and all six extra points, including two in overtime when there was zero room for error.


“When the lights have been on, he’s done a nice job,” Polian said. “And I give him a lot of credit. It’s not easy to be the No. 2 guy through the first two-thirds of the football season and then right before the biggest game of the season, have to come on and do it all. But it’s hard to argue with the results.”


“We have not kicked off the way I’d like to,” Polian added. “But nobody’s a harsher critic on Eric than Eric is. And [after he lost the job to Williamson] Eric was a great teammate, and he was really mature. He kept himself in shape, because you never know. And unfortunately for us, ‘you never know’ popped up.”


With Williamson still day-to-day, Whitaker stands a good chance of getting the call tomorrow night against the Ducks. The hype and build-up to the game, as well as the national title implications on both sides, will certainly heap even more pressure on Stanford–and the kicking game in particular.


Whitaker says that can’t become part of the equation when he takes the field with a national television audience and holding its breath.


“One thing that’s really tough is that 85 percent of the kicking game is all mentality,” he said. “Of course I’m nervous. But my job is to get over that and just produce. Like coach says, it’s a results game, and if I let the nerves get in the way it’s going to cost my team, and I can’t let that happen.”


Miles Bennett-Smith is Chief Operating Officer at The Daily. An avid sports fan from Penryn, Calif., Miles graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor's degree in American Studies. He has previously served as the Editor in Chief and President at The Daily. He has also worked as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee. Email him at [email protected]

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