Photo: Danny Karnik/GT Athletics
Photo: Danny Karnik/GT Athletics

What it’s like to compete for a kicking job for Paul Johnson

David Scully knows all about what Georgia Tech kickers Shawn Davis and Brenton King have gone through as they’ve competed with each other to be the Yellow Jackets’ starting kicker.

Sensing (or hearing) frustration from teammates when they fail on kicks that could have saved them from running. Having every kick scrutinized. And the pressure personally applied by coach Paul Johnson.

“He would literally be not four inches off my plant foot,” Scully said. “You could feel him staring.”

Scully walked on as a freshman in 2009 and redshirted that season. He got into two games as a redshirt freshman and then dueled Justin Moore for playing time in 2011 and 2012. He took care of the kickoffs in 2011 and then handling kickoffs and sharing field goals in 2012. Johnson put him on scholarship in 2012 for his on-field contributions.

He earned that playing time by surviving the cauldron that was the competition in practice, both preseason and into the season. Scully was fortunate in that he and Moore had a friendly competition, one in which each supported the other and made sure the other’s form was sound, but still pushed each other.

“That was something that I can only praise him for,” Scully said. “He made me a better kicker, and I made him a better kicker.”

He said he didn’t recall being nervous, but he always had to be vigilant about what he was thinking.

“I would let one thought get into my head, and it would throw me off,” Scully said. “It would kind of stagger my confidence.”

If that happened while he was lined up to kick, he said, and there wasn’t time to step away and re-focus, “you’re flirting with disaster. I never had a lack of confidence in my ability. If I did, it would be the absolute death of me.”

At the time, Tech had a coach specifically for special teams, Dave Walkosky, so the specialists always were under watch.

“We would chart (kicks) once a day, but no rep really went unnoticed, especially if we were going with a full operation” with the snapper, holder and kicker, Scully said.

The constant competition and comparison made it easy to lose focus, which is particularly dangerous at a position that requires concentration and mental strength.

“Even if I go 9-for-10, I don’t want the guy in front of me going 10 for 10,” he said. But, “if I’m thinking about the guy going 10-for-10, I’m going to go 7-for-10.”

Occasionally during camp, Johnson put kickers (and snappers and holders) under the gun, with conditioning sprints for the team riding on the outcome of a field-goal try. It was great when Scully made them, not as much when he didn’t. The feedback wasn’t always constructive.

“You just don’t want to hear that,” Scully said. “The response you get (after missing) from your teammates is almost worse than the response you get from your coaches. Your teammates, those are your friends. You’ve got to live with that.”

Scully making a career-long 47-yard field goal in the 2012 ACC championship game against Florida State. It is a moment that he still recalls fondly.
Photo: AJC file photo by Johnny Crawford

Johnson added his own twist, Scully recalled, sometimes letting a defensive player break through the line to take a run at the kick. Or, standing nearby, he talked to offensive-line coach Mike Sewak and loudly predicted that Scully was going to pull the kick. Or, as he took his steps to line up for a field goal – three steps back, two over -- Johnson stood close by. Really close by.

“You could feel him breathing in your ear,” Scully said.

But it was the sort of heat, figuratively if not literally, that Scully wanted.

“I don’t want to be told (after a miss), ‘Good job, you’ll get it next time,’” he said. “I want to be told, ‘What’d you do wrong? Go fix it.’”

Scully recalled his desire to come through for Johnson. The two were not close, he said, “but I’d go to war with him.” As a junior in 2012, he remembers the satisfaction he got in making a career-long 47-yard field goal in the ACC Championship game against Florida State, a clutch make at the end of a season in which the kicking game struggled. Scully, in fact, had not attempted a field goal in the previous five games. Coming off the field, Scully said, Johnson gave him a nod, which was enough.

“That’s all I wanted from coach Johnson: ‘Good job. You did your job. Now go get this kickoff,’” Scully said.

Scully didn’t get to play much as a senior, beaten out by then-freshman Harrison Butker – “the guy was a freaking stud,” Scully said – but he graduated with a degree in biochemistry and now is a database manager at the CDC.

Johnson said last week that he knew who he was going to choose between Davis and King. If it’s like Scully’s experience, though, the competition may not end in the preseason. And if both are fortunate, they’ll emerge from Tech appreciative of the competition, as Scully is.

“I feel like my experience for football was pretty much a microcosm for what I went through academically at Tech,” Scully said. “Just challenged the entire time through, and toward the end of it, you either come out on top or it swallows you up.”

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