A new tee could have prevented Alabama kicker Will Reichard's injury
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The misfortune surrounding Alabama’s kicking game knows no bounds. The Crimson Tide is all too familiar with mishaps on extra points, field goals and punts, but things seemed to reach a new level of misery when Will Reichard suffered a hip flexor injury by kicking the tee on a kickoff against Southern Miss on Sept. 21.
The freshman returned to kicking activities Monday for the first time since the injury. Although his status for Saturday’s game against Texas A&M remains uncertain as Alabama head coach Nick Saban listed him as “day-to-day” moving forward.
"Maybe he can kick, maybe he can punt, maybe he can’t kick off. I really don’t know at this point,” Saban said. “We’ll just have to evaluate it through the course of the week.”
Adding to Alabama's misfortune, this could have all been avoided had the freshman’s ill-fated kickoff had happened a week later.
Against Southern Miss, Reichard was kicking off of a Ground Zero tee — a hard piece of one-inch rubber with an indention in the middle to hold the ball. Instead of kicking the ball, he connected with the unforgiving block at full force, stopping his leg abruptly enough to cause the injury.
“It’s like kicking a brick,” said Mike McCabe, Reichard’s long-time kicking coach in Birmingham, Ala. “If you hit the ground first and then the tee, just pray it’s the bottom of your cleat hitting it.”
Reichard wasn’t so lucky. Although, that wouldn’t have even mattered if he was using the new Launch Pad tee released last month. The state-of-the-art tee is shaped like a wedge and is made from a softer, flexible rubber which is pliable enough to scrunch in your hand.
“It’s the safest tee we’ve ever seen in that it’s almost impossible to kick it because it has an on-ramp on the beginning,” Launch Pad president Bill Shafer said. “If you do happen to kick the mounting apparatus, it’s so flexible that it doesn’t hurt at all.”
Had Reichard accidentally kicked a Launch Pad, his availability this week wouldn't be in question. The only problem is the tee is so new the kicker had yet to get ahold of one. Shafer said the company received its first shipment three weeks ago and began sending them to various colleges. McCabe, who runs One on One Kicking, was one of the first to receive the tee but was still in the process of testing it out before sending it along to Reichard.
“I got it about two weeks ago, and I’ve been playing with it myself to test it out,” McCabe said. “When Will got hurt and I heard what happened to him I sent him one.”
While the new tee would have come in handy a few weeks ago, there’s still plenty for Reichard and Alabama to be excited about.
Along with the added safety, the Launch Pad's flexible walls allow kickers to angle the ball forward. This gives the kicker a better chance of hitting the ball at its maximum point of impact. With the Ground Zero, kickers are limited to angling the ball either straight up and down or slightly back as the tee has no way of supporting the ball if it was leaning forward.
“If you want to hit touchbacks and drive the ball far, then you need the ball straight vertical or you’ve got to give it a slight forward lean,” said Kaare Vedvik, an NFL free agent kicker/punter who most recently kicked for the New York Jets this season. “When you lean it forward, it opens up the sweet spot of the ball making it more open for your foot to hit the ball. I’m still fairly new to using it, but I’m enjoying it so far. I like the idea behind it.”
Vedvick’s said he’s been using the Ground Zero for six years and has only spent two kicking sessions using the Launch Pad. While he says it’s too early to tell what his preference is, it’s tough to argue with the success of the new tee.
“If you kick the ball and it’s your record-long kick, it’s hard to analyze why or how it happened. But it happened when I used (the Launch Pad tee),” Vedvick said. “I was kicking from the 30, and the ball went 8 yards deep in the end zone. I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s pretty good.’ I thought it was a line drive, but we looked at the hang time and it was 4.1 which is a good hang time. So I was like, ‘Is that a coincidence or not?’
“Then I had a mishit with the same tee where I hit the ground then the tee then the ball. The ball still went 8 yards deep from the 30. It didn’t actually restrict my kick as much as I thought it would have. Usually if I hit ground and then the ball with any other tee it at least takes 10 yards off my kick.”
Shafer, who kicked at the college and semi-pro levels, says one of his hopes for the new tee is that it will open up opportunities for more kickers in the future.
“It will help out kickers who are accurate on field goals but might struggle with kickoffs,” he said. “There’s a lot of those guys out there. This will enable them to add a few more yards to their kickoffs and possibly pick up more scholarship opportunities.”
The Launch Pad is patent-pending and has been approved both at the NCAA and high school levels. Shafer said the company is still waiting to hear word back from the NFL, although the tee meets the league’s guidelines.
Now that Reichard has the tee, it should theoretically aid his already powerful leg. Through four games, the freshman has recorded 22 touchbacks on 29 kickoffs while using the Ground Zero tee.
Of course, if Reichard was to switch to the Launch Pad it would require some time getting used to. Vedvick estimates it would take him roughly two full days of kicking off the new tee to get comfortable enough to use it in a game. Although, that could change from kicker to kicker.
“The transition isn’t that hard,” he said. “In the beginning, I thought I had to swing differently because it looked different, but that wasn’t the case. I actually hit my normal balls as soon as I decided to hit the ball the same way I would hit it off the Ground Zero. I figured that out, and after five or six kicks I was good.”
It’s uncertain whether or not Reichard will elect to use the new tee moving forward. However, at the very least, it’s one more tool Alabama has in its battle against a litany of special teams misfortunes.