January 13, 2008

Will Ole Miss sign a kicker?

Ole Miss has five kickers on scholarship but struggled in both areas many times during the 2007 season.

The question is - will new Rebel head football coach Houston Nutt roll the dice on developing those five kickers or invest a scholarship for a kicker who might come in and contribute immediately. Overall, including walk-ons, the Rebels showed 11 kickers on last year's roster.

The answer is that it's undecided at this point, but if the Rebels do go after a kicker, it could be Beaumont, Texas kicker Donnie Carona.

"I know Ole Miss has several kickers on scholarship," Carona said Saturday while on an official visit to Texas Tech. "I've heard from (Special Teams coach James) Shibest and they just haven't decided what they are going to do yet. They are after me to take an official visit."

Carona was being recruited by the former staff and efforts continue under the new staff, although Ole Miss is yet to offer.

The Rebels have junior-to-be Josh Shene, who was a freshman All-American following the 2006 season, but struggled some last fall. Part of his kicking woes were attributed by the former staff of having to deal with doing both kick offs and place kicking, a switch from the 2006 when he did only place kicking. He also had some minor injuries to deal with.

In addition to Shene, the Rebels used walk-on senior Christian Albarracin for some kick offs as well as redshirt junior-to-be Justin Sparks. Sparks also handled most of the punting chores but did kick off some and may have been the only Rebel kicker who got the ball to the end zone at least on one occasion.

The struggles in the kicking game coincided with the NCAA rule change that moved the kick off from the 35-yard line to the 30 yard line in an effort to speed up the length of games.

The Rebels opened the season against Memphis with the Tigers having a long return and it quickly developed into a trend. It could be argued that the special teams play associated with short kicks or poor coverage cost the Rebels chances at winning several games.

Punting is another area where the Rebels struggled. Sparks beat out two year starting punter Rob Park and punted most of the season with a few exceptions. Evidently, former head coach Ed Orgeron wasn't overly excited about either punter after last spring and signed a punter, Brian Powers, from College of San Mateo in California. He didn't play last fall - unable to unseat either Park or Sparks.

One question Nutt may have to consider is how much of Ole Miss kicking problems were because of coaching and how much can be attributed to talent.

While kicking was inconsistent, the Rebels had numerous break downs on coverage and finally settled on squib kicking instead of directional kicking where the ball is kicked between a hash mark and the sideline where a returner is essentially pinned in and makes coverage easier. Most teams were successful in covering kicks done in that manner even if the kick didn't travel to the end zone.

Another factor in the Rebels decision will be the coach running special teams for Nutt - and that's Shibest.

He's flipped duties between coaching tight ends and wide receivers during eight seasons with Nutt, but has headed special teams for Nutt for several years and will continue in that role at Ole Miss.

If the Rebels do decide to add another kicker, Carona could be high on their list.

The 6-foot 215 pound athlete was four of five on field goals last fall and seven of eight as a junior with long kicks of 47 and 48 yards. He claims to average a distance of 75 yards on his kick offs - which would put the ball five yards deep in the end zone in college. Rivals.com highlight video shows the left-footer kicking the ball deep into the end zone from the 40-yard line in high school.

Carona is a standout student with a 4.0 GPA and he was also more than just a kicker in high school.

He not only handled his high school team's kicking, punting, and kick-off duties, but also earned All-District honors at running back.

He said he has punted and kicked since he was a freshman also started at linebacker as freshman and sophomore, then played running back the last two years.

"I think my best chance to play at the Division I level is as a kicker," Carona said. "I'd just like to get a chance to play at that level."

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