Unlike the 2019 season, Matt Ruffolo enters the 2020 UK football season as the Wildcats’ starting placekicker. Called into action to help the struggling Chance Poore, Ruffolo drilled a chip shot at Mississippi State to secure a spot in the lineup.
Through his first three games he only missed one kick and buried a 53-yard field goal against Arkansas. The Spicy Italian Meatball was serving up points, until he let the wet weather get inside his head. He missed a PAT in the downpour vs. Missouri. Then Ruffolo let one miss turn into two.
“Last year is not the year we wanted to have. Especially in that Missouri game where I missed two extra points,” Ruffolo said recently. “That was more of a learning lesson for me. I learned a lot from it and fortunately got the chance to come back at the end of the season. Overall, kicking is kind of a mental game. I think I was prepared kicking wise, but mentally coming into that Missouri game it could’ve been better. But it was a good learning experience for me; definitely more mentally tough this year. Kicking is a mental thing. You just gotta kick every ball like it’s an extra point.”
If the first week of the NFL season taught us anything, it’s that kicking is in fact a mental game. With the help of quality control assistant Louie Matsakis, Ruffolo instilled positive reinforcement into his self-talk before he took the field.
“As a kicker, it’s basically telling yourself, ‘Hey, you can make this kick. You got this kick.’ The first one (miss) was just a fluke. I went back out there for the second one and I was like, ‘Oh crap, if I miss this it’s not going to be good.’ Instead of telling myself, ‘Oh crap,’ I need to be like, ‘Hey, you got this. The last one was just a fluke.’ It’s basically just telling yourself you can make the kick and you will make the kick.”
His confidence has continued to grow since that learning lesson at Missouri. This offseason he worked on increasing his distance. Now comfortable from 50 yards and in, Ruffolo is even getting better from beyond that distance, knocking down a 52-yarder in a scrimmage.
This year placekickers will have a much different backdrop without fans filling the stands. Some may feel the heat. For Ruffolo, the most pressure-packed situation happens everyday at practice.
“Whether there’s zero fans or no fans at all, in practice Stoops stands right over me, so that’s pretty intimidating in itself. Obviously I want fans there. It definitely adds a little bit of pressure. But like I said, zero fans, no fans, it shouldn’t affect me too much.”
The Best Punter in Football
Max Duffy did everything you could possibly ask of a punter in 2019. He led the nation in every major statistical category on his way to becoming the program’s first Ray Guy Award winner. His legs are good for more than punting. Last year he ripped off a 26-yard run for a first down against Missouri that set up a score for Lynn Bowden that thrust a dagger through the Tigers.
Like Ruffolo, Duffy learned a lesson from the Missouri game: he should have been running more often.
“There’s no doubt I proved myself against Missouri that if they let me run, I’m happy to. Give me the ball and let me go!” All joking aside, he missed a few other opportunities to tuck it and run in 2019.
“In all seriousness though, with punting this year, we’re really hoping to take advantage of more of those situations. We’re not going to shy away from it. I think last year we missed two or three opportunities. It’s not a selfish thing for me. Obviously, it’s really fun when I get to run it but from a team point of view, if we can keep moving the ball, we’re going to. For me, I’m going to look for those opportunities more this year and hopefully take full advantage of them because we missed out on a few last year. Really, we had one and we should of had three or four.”
Duffy is adding more strings to his bow this year, serving as the Wildcats’ holder. Punters are the preferred position to act as the holder on field goals because they spend so much time together with the kickers during practice, giving them more reps to get comfortable with one another.
There will be a new long snapper getting the ball back to Duffy this year. This will be Cade Degraw’s first season as the Cats’ long snapper.
Lynn Bowden is the most explosive player to return kicks for the Wildcats since Derek Abney tied an NCAA record for return touchdowns back in 2002. One negative side effect of Bowden Ball is that it took him out of the return game. In his place #6 Josh Ali produced mixed results. Instead of going for the home run, coaches took a “just catch the ball philosophy” that did not work on one play. Once Ali got his toes wet and got the muff out of his system, he became the sure-handed receiver on the punt return team, even taking one ten yards in the Belk Bowl.
On kickoffs, #28 Zach Johnson will prove why he’s a special teams superstar. The explosive athlete showed off his skills as a return man by nearly taking one to the house in the second half at Georgia last season.
Johnson is due for a couple big plays as the Wildcats’ kickoff returner this fall. However, I’m more excited to see what he does on Kentucky’s kickoff team. The senior from Cincinnati drops the HAMMER.
— Cats Coverage 😼 (@CatsCoverage_) December 31, 2019