Powell missed the first five field goal attempts of his junior season and didn’t convert one until WSU’s sixth game. But he's made 28 of 33 since and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award this season.
Twice this season, in what’s been the best year of his career, Washington State kicker Erik Powell has extended his career-long in field goals.
He converted a 52-yard field goal against Oregon, matched that at Cal, then knocked a 56-yarder between the uprights against Arizona with room to spare.
“I like to say that kick would have been good from 62,” Powell says.
That 56-yarder put WSU’s senior kicker in elite company as one of only four FBS kickers who have successfully converted field goals of more than 55 yards this season.
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Three of those four kickers play in the Pac-12. Arizona’s Lucas Havrisik leads the group thanks to his 57-yard conversion against the Cougs — the longest in FBS football this season.
Powell’s 56-yarder against Arizona ties him with Utah’s Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Matt Gay, and Pitt’s Alex Kessman for the second-longest FBS field goal this year.
As WSU special teams coach Eric Mele will attest, Powell has always had a big leg. But finding consistency this year was a game-changer for Powell, who, in his final season, has surpassed all expectations, going 19 of 23 on field goals and finishing as a Lou Groza Award semifinalist and All-Pac-12 second team selection, with three Pac-12 Special Teams player of the week awards.
With just the Holiday Bowl game against Michigan State remaining, Powell sits in third place behind WSU’s Drew Dunning and Jason Hanson in career field goals made (50) and points (312).
Powell’s surge toward the top of WSU’s all-time kicking ranks is even more remarkable considering how miserably his junior season started – the Cougs’ kicker missed his first five field goal attempts and didn’t convert one until WSU’s sixth game – a 36-yarder against UCLA.
“I don’t think anyone has ever cheered that loud after a first quarter make. But it was good to finally get over that hump,” Powell says, reflecting back. “And Mele did a really good job of helping to make sure I was keeping my head up and stuff like that, he had a lot of confidence in me, which really helped.”
That conversion against UCLA shook Powell out of his slump, and he converted nine of his final 10 field goals to finish the season. Combine that with his 2017 record, and Powell is 28 of 33 over WSU’s last 20 games since Oct. 1, 2016. That’s a 85.8 conversion percentage, compared to his career conversion percentage of 72.4.
However, Powell claims there’s really no big secret to how he’s turned things around in the span of a year.
“Prior to this season, I had bits and pieces of it, and I think what came together this year was mentality,” Powell says. “That’s a huge part of kicking. Making everything the same, keeping each kick the same, routine kick whether it’s the fourth quarter or the first quarter. And when you go out, only worrying about what you can control.
“In the past, I worried about the snap or the hold or how much time was on the play clock. But you have to realize when you go out there that the kick is the only thing you can worry about, and trust that the other guys will do their jobs.”
Being single-mindedly focused is, of course, more difficult to do than to talk about. And it took Powell, a former walk-on from Vancouver’s Seton Catholic High School, five years to put everything together and develop that confident, steady mindset that all kickers covet.
“I think it’s developed over time,” Mele said. “He’s always been resilient. Now, it’s just dialing in the focus and the confidence.”
Along the way, Mele has devised little tricks to cultivate Powell’s steadiness. He got Powell involved with a sports psychologist during his sophomore year, and the kicker says he still uses many of those tips today.
Also, “last year, we started calling (kicks) extra points instead of field goals,” Mele said. “If he’s kicking a PAT, even if you back the ball up, he’ll make it. If he visualizes it as an extra point instead of a field goal, it’s, ‘go kick an extra point.’”
Now, Powell has honed his gameday routine “down to a science,” Mele says. “We’ve had a routine, but over time, it’s gotten more detailed and more specific and dialed in to what he needs.”
This year, for instance, a student assistant keeps a backpack of snacks for Powell on the sidelines that contains apple sauce packs, Rice Krispies Treats and Gatorade Energy Chews.
Powell says he’s not superstitious enough to eat each snack at a specific juncture of the game, but he generally goes through two apple sauce packs and Rice Krispies Treats in a game.
“I always get hungry during the game, so I definitely have my snacks on the side, and I’m always eating in the games,” Powell said. “I think we’ve tried to make that more of a thing this season. It kinda just goes back to keeping the same routine.”
Powell now has his sights set on the NFL. It’s something he might not have put as much stock in last year, but, “it makes it more of a reality when you have a solid senior season,” Powell said.
Breaking into the NFL’s kicking ranks is notoriously difficult. However, WSU has some history of producing solid pro kicker: Jason Hanson was Detroit’s second round draft pick in 1992, and he played his entire 21-year career with the Lions before retiring in 2012. Rian Lindell, who, like Powell, is from Vancouver, was signed and cut by the Cowboys and Seahawks before he broke through and enjoyed a 10-year career with the Buffalo Bills.
More recently, Andrew Furney signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2014, but was cut before the regular season began, resigned, then cut again the following year.
Powell says he’s in touch with Furney, who gives him helpful pointers, and that he’s also worked with Lindell once, a couple of years ago, when the former Bills kicker came out to a spring practice to help WSU’s kickers.
Powell believes he has the leg strength and accuracy to compete for an NFL job. He estimates his field goal range at about 60 yards and says that would have been his answer last season too, though, he quips, “you might not have believed me last year.”
“But I feel like I could kick that far,” Powell says. “Making it that far more consistently has definitely improved this year.”
Still, he knows it’s going to be a crapshoot.
“It’s tough. There are only 32 spots and there are no backups,” Powell said. “It’s hard to get in that kicking pool. There’s a little luck that goes into it. Look how many senior kickers there are. And when you get your shot you’ve got to execute. You only get so many chances.”