Zach Hocker realized a life-long dream Saturday.
Now he has to hold onto it.
Hocker, the former Arkansas product who beat out Dustin Hopkins for the Saints’ starting kicking job, is well aware that his work is far from over.
“I haven’t been able to settle in,” Hocker said. “Just because you’re named the guy doesn’t mean you’re going to be the guy for long. I’m still an unproven guy for a regular-season game, so this game’s going to be huge for me, these next couple of weeks will be huge.”
Hocker has been through the final cutdown day before.
Plucked in the seventh round of the 2014 draft by the Washington Redskins, Hocker went down to the wire with Redskins kicker Kai Forbath, only to find out he’d lost on the final day of cuts.
This time, Hocker’s fiancée came down to New Orleans and waited it out with him.
Kicking is the rare position that can be easily broken down to numbers; Hocker knew that in terms of practice kicks, he hadn’t been able to beat out Hopkins. The former Florida State player had beaten Hocker by a couple of percentage points on the practice field.
Hocker had the edge in games. Knowing all those numbers, he spent the day trying to find something, anything, to take his mind off of what was going on in the coach’s offices.
“I tried, but nothing was working,” Hocker said. “Just because this is my second time to go through this process. It wasn’t fun the first time. You can’t help but think about that, the last time it happened.”
The 3 p.m. deadline to get down to the 53-man roster passed.
But Hocker still didn’t feel safe. Teams across the league parted ways with veteran kickers Saturday, and Hocker is well aware that a last-minute trade or an available veteran could change the mix.
New Orleans decided to stick with Hocker.
“I think that it was real close,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I don’t know that we went in with any preconceived idea of who we thought it might be. Each of them has traits that we liked.”
Hocker’s consistency won the job.
“He has a very consistent stroke. If we just watched, in a real tight copy, him kick the ball, it would be hard to tell when he’s attempting a 45-yard field goal or a 20-yard field goal. ... I think him hitting the field goals early in the preseason, for him, was a big confidence boost,” Payton said. “We are confident that he is going to do a good job.”
An hour and a half after the 3 p.m. deadline, Saints special teams coach Greg McMahon called and told Hocker that he’d be the Saints’ kicker. Hocker, who has been friends with Hopkins for a long time, talked to his friend over the phone. Then, elated by the chance to realize a life-long dream, Hocker and his fiancée headed out to dinner.
Then Sunday came, and Hocker went about the business of preparing for the regular season, his chance to establish himself as a bona fide NFL kicker.
A few of his duties remain in question.
During the preseason, Hocker and Hopkins handled kickoff duties, with Hocker regularly blasting touchbacks out of the end zone. In the past, Saints punter Thomas Morstead has handled those duties, and the Saints have not decided who will kick off in Arizona this weekend.
Hocker will understand either way. If Morstead continues to kick off, it won’t be a disappointment, but Hocker does build some momentum in games by blasting kickoffs out the back of the end zone.
“Kicking off well during the preseason definitely helped me build confidence up going into the regular season, and if they throw me out there, then I’ll plan on slinging touchbacks,” Hocker said.
But kickoffs matter only so much.
Hocker knows he has to earn his stripes on field goals, when the game is on the line. If he can rise to that challenge, Hocker could be in New Orleans for years to come.
“I can only control what I can control,” Hocker said. “If I’m making kicks, hopefully they keep me around.”