When Tulane practiced kickoffs Friday morning at Tad Gormley Stadium, the tee was placed on the 40-yard line instead of the actual college spot at the 35. Specialists Peter Picerelli, Andrew DiRocco and Steven Broccoli still struggled to get the ball to the end zone, another indication of how much the Green Wave misses Cairo Santos.
Never mind Santos’ perfection on field goals in 2012, when he won the Lou Groza Award after connecting on all 21 of his attempts. Just as large a concern is field position after kickoffs, where Santos produced a whopping 47 touchbacks on 62 tries last year.
“It’s going to be hard to replace Cairo,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “We just have to do some things differently. We do have some fast guys who can cover it (kickoffs). Now we know we have to plan on covering all the time.”
On a team with several holes to fill as it tries to build on last year’s New Orleans Bowl bid, the kicking game remains the most uncertain.
Santos, who followed his dream 2012 season by going 16 of 23 on field goals as a senior, is competing for a roster spot with the Kansas City Chiefs. In his place are DiRocco, a freshman from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Broccoli, a junior walk-on whose next kick will be his first.
Understandably, neither of them has Santos’ range or accuracy at this point. Tulane has not even attempted field goals from longer than 42 yards in open practices.
“I feel like I’ve been a little inconsistent with a new college snapper and holder,” said DiRocco, the nation’s No. 13 kicking recruit according to 247Sports.com. “I just have to get that down, and everything will come together.”
DiRocco said his longest field goal in high school was from 42 yards. Santos hit a Tulane-record 57-yarder against Rice in 2012 and backed that up with a 56-yarder against ULM last season.
The larger concern, though, is the new kickers’ reliability from closer distances. DiRocco and Broccoli have missed some chip shots in practice.
Johnson said he will not name a starter until the week of the Aug. 28 opener against Tulsa.
“I’m just trying my hardest to impress the coaches,” Broccoli said. “Even though we have big shoes to fill with Cairo, I learned a lot from him. I learned stance from him and how to place my foot, little things that will make me kick a lot better.”
Instead of panicking at his kickers’ preseason struggles, Johnson pointed to snapping issues as the biggest culprit. Timing is everything on kicks, but sophomore scholarship long snapper Michael Lizanich and tight end Matt Marfisi, the two players battling for that role, sprayed their snaps in the first week of practice.
Lizanich has become steadier in Week 2, making Johnson more optimistic about the future for DiRocco and Broccoli.
“Lizanich is coming around,” Johnson said. “I hate calling his name out, but he’s starting to be one of my favorites. It’s what have you done for me lately.”
Lizanich did not do much early. Arriving as the No. 2-rated deep-snapping prospect in the country according to ESPN.com, he lost his job after a series of poor snaps on punts in the first four games last year, sitting out the next five games before returning solely for punt snaps.
This year he expects to be on the field for all punts and field goals.
“It will be a lot better and a lot more secure than last year,” Lizanich said. “Last summer I was told I had to be here for school and because of that I did not work on my skills as I was supposed to. This summer I actually returned to Arizona and gained 23 pounds and I snapped better than I ever have. A lot of the training was needed.”
If the snap and the hold are OK, it comes down to the kicker. Last year, when Tulane got the ball back in triple overtime against East Carolina, Johnson sent Santos on the field on first down to drill a winning 42-yard kick.
It is unclear how confident Johnson will be from any down and distance with DiRocco or Broccoli. Outwardly, he is betraying little concern.
“I don’t know who’s better, so that’s a good problem to have,” he said. “I think both of them are making enough kicks. I just don’t know the distance and how accurate. One day we’re at the Saints with the skinny goalposts, and then we are in the high school (Newman) with the wider ones. We are going to keep that thing going.”