TAMPA — Before folks finish reveling in the fact that USF sophomore kicker Spencer Shrader drilled his field goals last Saturday at Memphis, finishing 4-for-4 and getting named the American Athletic Conference special teams player of the week, it would be interesting to look back at a photo.
A photo from Nov. 16, 2019, that is heartbreaking when you know what happened: USF and Cincinnati players looking up to the goal posts, the Bulls hoping the ball sailed straight while the Bearcats hoped for the opposite.
In the middle of the picture is Shrader, eyes on the ball, the most hopeful of all.
The ball ticked off the right upright. Yet another miss for Shrader, making him 0-for-4 on the night.
A few minutes later as time expired, Cincinnati kicked what would be the game winner. No sooner was the final score posted — Cincinnati 20, USF 17 — than the nastiness rained down on Shrader from social media.
The walk-on freshman was devastated.
“For the next couple of weeks it was really hard to walk into the locker room and face everybody,” Shrader said. “The greatest thing was that I never heard a single unkind thing from my teammates or my coaches. I honestly did not deserve the amount of support that I got. They still believed in me.”
Shrader hung in there, and did a lot of thinking, and as much as anything, was perplexed.
“I still have trouble understanding why I missed four field goals like that,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I had never had a practice anywhere close to that performance (against Cincinnati). I could find no clear cause as to why that happened.”
Coaches also scratched their heads, including new coach Jeff Scott.
“I say this with 100 percent certainty: (Shrader) is the best practice kicker I’ve ever been around,” Scott said after Shrader’s award-winning performance against Memphis. “He just has to translate that to the game. If he continues to translate his practice performance to the game, he’ll be one of the greatest kickers to ever play here.”
A large part of it, Shrader said, is simply getting down “the mentality” of being a football kicker.
It’s not like soccer, the game he played exceptionally well from the time he was a tyke, through high school (school-record 33 goals in a season for Newsome), to a professional tryout in Brazil (for three months in 2018).
After all, Shrader came to play the game of football on a relative whim, a moment when he was a Newsome junior on a spring day in 2017. Following soccer practice he was haphazardly kicking footballs simply because they happened to be nearby.
The football coach at the time, Ken Hiscock, was walking nearby when he said he was stopped short “by the sound.”
“As soon as I heard that ‘sound’ I said, ‘Now hold on a darned minute,’” Hiscock said. “You don’t hear that sound very often, that sound of the ball being crushed by somebody’s foot. It’s a bigger sound. A more powerful sound.”
Hiscock walked right over and said, “How would you like to try football?”
After a little consideration Shrader went for it because he it was out of his comfort zone and he thought it “might be fun.”
He practiced at least a little bit every day through the summer, and by the time football practice rolled around in the fall, he put on a football uniform for the first time: “I had to have somebody help me because I didn’t know exactly where everything was supposed to go.”
He went on kicking footballs, including the opening kickoff to the 2017 season, a ball he accidentally squibbed and had run back for a touchdown, a play that made him say, “Maybe I should quit football. I don’t belong on a football field. I belong on a soccer field.”
He kept on kicking footballs and by season’s end, had made 12 of 15 field goals, booted 70 percent of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks and was named all-state.
But it wasn’t until 2019, after the professional attempts at soccer, that he thought again about the sport.
Again, on a relative whim, he sent a tape of himself kicking to USF. Like Hiscock, after seeing how strong Shrader was, the Bulls said we have to give this guy a try.
In the week leading up to the Memphis game, Shrader’s practices were never better. In one stretch he went 15-for-15 on field goals with nine of those longer than 50 yards.
Scott said the plan was to give Shrader all kicks attempted over 45 yards with anything shorter going to Jared Sackett. But when Shrader drilled his first two kicks from 49 (may have been good from 60 yards) and 47 yards, Scott decided “to go with the guy who was hot” and let Shrader drill the final two from 46 and 41 as well. Yes, USF (1-6, 0-5) lost 34-33, but certainly not because of Shrader, who is now 4-for-5 on the season.
Afterward, considering all he has been through, Shrader said he had gained even more invaluable perspective.
“I know I am a better kicker than I was last year,” Shrader said. “I know I am better technically and my leg is a little stronger. But am I so much better than I was last year? I don’t think so. I know I was a good kicker last year. I just had this one game where it didn’t go well. The way I looked at it going in Memphis was, all that’s bad has already happened to me, from there I just had to go out and do my job.”
It’s the same mentality, he said, he will take into Saturday’s American Athletic Conference game at Houston (2-3, 2-2).
“I can’t get too caught up in the highs or the lows,” Shrader said. “The fact is, I know I can do this. Now I just have to go out and do it.”