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Arizona football: Jake Smith at right place, right time to be starting kicker

Jake Smith

Jake Smith

The field goal period of practice isn’t the most exciting. Snap, hold, kick. Move to the next mark. Snap, hold, kick.

It certainly isn’t supposed to go snap, hold, kick … and snap again in a fraction of a second.

That’s what happened one day in the Arizona Wildcats’ fall camp last season, when the football life of kicker Jake Smith took yet another detour during a routine drill as he extended his right leg after a field goal try.

“Somebody came in late. Helmet right to the knee. Knee went the wrong way, and I had to get my ACL repaired,” Smith said after Monday’s practice.

“Wrong place, wrong time.”

The kid from Philadelphia has been to a prep school in Connecticut after high school, Syracuse for one season and Youngstown State for another season before coming to Arizona, which he says is very much, finally, the right place.

And his senior year might be the right time.

Smith, who competed with John Bonano through spring and into fall last year, is back kicking again about six months after tearing his ACL … and he very well could be the Wildcats’ starting kicker in 2013.

“I’m pretty excited to be back this early,” he said.

“I rehabbed twice a day for five months. It’s worked out. My knee feel great. I’m really confident in it right now. This is the time to make things count.”

Bonano is gone, and Arizona has two other unproven walk-on kickers on the roster — sophomore Casey Skowron (last season’s not-used backup) and junior Alex Ragsdale, a transfer from Colorado State who is eligible this year.

“The way I look at competition is I need to focus on what I can do,” Smith said.

“If I do everything to the best of my abilities, I’m not really worried about what the other person does. … If I make every kick, I kind of force the coach’s hand to put me on the field, you know?”

He graduated from Philadelphia’s Cheltenham High in 2009 and enrolled at Milford Academy in Connecticut, where he expected to spend a semester before joining a four-year college. But a couple of weeks into his stay at Milford, Syracuse called with a scholarship. The Orange’s projected starting kicker had quit the team during August camp.

“And they make a bunch of promises, the same way a lot of programs do,” Smith said.

“But that is the exact opposite of this coaching staff. That coaching staff looked at you as a number. This one looks at you as a person.”

For whatever promises were made, Smith attempted only one field goal at Syracuse — a 50-yarder as time expired in the first half against Penn State. It missed.

“Syracuse is a great school. The best friends I have are from Syracuse,” Smith said. “The football program just wasn’t right for me.”

He left for lower-division Youngstown State in 2010, handling kickoff duties but not attempting a field goal.

“Great coaching staff, great players,” Smith said of the Penguins. “The school there wasn’t right for me; I needed a bigger school.”

With recommendations from his kicking coaches, an eye toward Arizona’s business program and due diligence studying depth charts, he decided to set his course for Tucson in 2011. The former UA coaching staff welcomed him as a potential walk-on, although the two-time transfer couldn’t practice with the team while establishing his year in residence.

Smith officially joined the team in January 2012 after coach Rich Rodriguez was hired.

“Spring came around and he gave me a chance to compete,” Smith said.

“For the most part, I was happy with my spring performance. In the summer, we would kick four times a week and then camp comes around and I’m like, ‘Ok, this is my shot.’”

With Bonano nursing a hamstring injury early in fall camp, it really was Smith’s shot.

“In my head, I was the starter, but I think that’s the attitude every person on this team should have,” Smith said. “Then I got hurt. It was kind of crushing. I wasn’t the happiest person for a couple of weeks.”

He’s happy now. He’s sitting at the crossroads of health and opportunity, right school, right program.

“It definitely took a while,” he said. “I finally found the right fit.”

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