By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The fact that a 23-year old kicker, who is listed at just 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, stood out the most during the Iowa football team’s final spring practice on Saturday shouldn’t necessarily be considered bad news.
With so many projected starters not practicing due to injuries, and with the wind gusting throughout Kinnick Stadium, Caleb Shudak had a chance to seize the moment, and Iowa’s new starting kicker rose to the occasion.
And while it’s true that it was only one spring practice, Shudak showed both strength and accuracy despite the brutal kicking conditions.
“It was interesting,” Shudak said of the windy conditions. “It was fun to have an opportunity to kick in wind like this because we played a lot of games last year where it was kind of windy.
“We’ve been pretty lucky so far this spring, so today was fun. It was interesting. But it was kind of a challenge.”
Shudak’s performance on Saturday, and throughout spring practice, has made a strong impression on Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
“I don’t feel great about a lot of things, I feel pretty good about that one,” Ferentz said of Shudak being the new starting kicker. “He could’ve been a starter the last two years. We’d watch it every day in practice.
“It’s one thing the way he performs, but it’s also the way he’s wired mentally. He’s really a mentally tough guy, focused. Just so serious.”
Patience appears to be another one of Shudak’s strengths, considering he joined the program as walk-on in 2016, and now finally has the starting job heading into his sixth season.
Shudak handled kickoffs in each of the past two seasons, but Keith Duncan was used for field goals, and deservedly so, since Duncan was named a consensus first-team All-America kicker in 2019, and also performed well last season.
“It’s a different leadership role, it’s a different challenge,” Shudak said. “But Keith did a great job and I learned a lot from him. So I think it’s definitely been a growing experience.”
The NCAA gave student-athletes a free year of eligibility in 2020 due to the global pandemic, and that paved the way for Shudak to return on scholarship. He called the decision to return a no-brainer.
“I was going to try and take a medical year, but Covid kind of made it a little easier,” Shudak said.
Shudak, who is the son of former Iowa State kicker Jeff Shudak, had briefly entered the NCAA transfer portal in 2019 before deciding to stay at Iowa where he is now on course to receive a master’s degree in December.
He probably could’ve been a starting kicker for a different school, but the decision to stay at Iowa involved more than just football. Shudak also likes the student side of his college experience, and that keeps him busy and happy away from football.
“I think it’s super important for guys to have a life outside of football, and have things to do outside of football because, yeah, we’re in the building so much,” Shudak said. “But when you go home, you need to be able to unwind to relax and kind of enjoy things, because otherwise, it’s a tedious work-like experience. It should be fun for everybody.”
It also helps that Shudak and Duncan are close friends away from football.
Of course, Shudak would’ve preferred to have been the starter much sooner, but he respected Duncan, and it was hard to argue with the results as Duncan made a school-record 29 field-goals attempts in 2019.
Shudak takes satisfaction in knowing that he helped on a daily basis in practice to make Duncan a better kicker.
Duncan couldn’t risk letting up or becoming complacent or satisfied because Shudak pushed him every day in practice to get better.
“It was never tough because me and Keith got along real great,” Shudak said. “It was constant competition. I think iron sharpens iron and it runs so true with Iowa football, sand Keith and I, I think are great examples of tha.t
“His success, I think, is just a by-product of the competition that we always had.”
A case could be made for Shudak being the second most important, or indispensable, player on the team behind starting quarterback Spencer Petras.
Iowa has a history of playing in close games under Kirk Ferentz, and Duncan is a big part of that history after having made game-winning field goals against Nebraska twice, and against Michigan in 2016.
What Duncan lacked in leg strength, he made up for with pin-point accuracy to about 50 yards.
But when Iowa attempted a 52-yard field goal against Northwestern last season at Kinnick Stadium, Kirk Ferentz turned to Shaduk, whose kick hit the right upright as time expired in the second quarter.
Iowa would go on to lose 21-20 to the Wildcats.
It was no secret that Shudak had a stronger leg than Duncan, but it still was sort of strange seeing an All-America kicker get replaced for such an important field goal.
That just shows how much trust Kirk Ferentz has in Shudak, and that level of trust seems to have risen this spring with Shudak practicing as the starter.
Shudak still has to deliver in prime time, however, and until he does, all the talk is just hope and hype.
But he sure looked impressive on Saturday, and Kirk Ferentz doesn’t just hype a player to make him feel good.
Ferentz seems convinced that having to replace one of greatest kickers in program history won’t be as hard as it sounds, or that it usually proves to be in many cases.
But that’s not a knock against Duncan, but rather high praise for Shudak.