UNIVERSITY PARK - Sam Ficken went from feeling near zero to finishing with a perfect 10 in 2012.
Building on that for 2013 will take an improved mental approach, which he built from his early-season struggles last year, and improved physical skills, for which he's credited Penn State trainer Craig Fitzgerald.
Ficken's on-field performance not only mirrored the Nittany Lions last season, with a shaky 0-2 start followed by a strong finish, his performance was directly responsible for two of its most notable final scores.
He went 1-for-5 at Virginia, and his 42-yard miss at the end of the game led to a 17-16 defeat in the season's second game. But he converted his last 10 tries, including a 37-yarder in overtime of the 24-21 season finale win over Wisconsin.
"Even when I struggled, after the Virginia game I got, like 150 emails saying, 'Hey, sorry about all the crap going on. We support you,'" said Ficken. "It was good to see, and by the end it was pretty sweet."
Ficken, now a junior, ended up 14-for-21 on field goals and 39-for-41 on his extra points.
There is plenty of precedent for Ficken's improvement by Nittany Lion kickers. One would be Robbie Gould, the Central Mountain High School graduate who battled inconsistencies in college before becoming an All-Pro with the Chicago Bears. And Ficken said Gould helped with his mental approach, working with him to slow down and not rush.
"We went over film, the mentality we talked about, and the way I need to practice," said Ficken. "He helped with fundamentals. I'm now doing 2 steps instead of 2 and that eliminates some room for error."
There were others, such as Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh and coaches with kicking backgrounds from high school. Anyone who could help, though Gould's hometown of Lock Haven sitting less than an hour from Penn State and Ficken's hometown of Valparaiso, Ind., sitting less than an hour from Chicago made their pairing particularly convenient for some face time.
"Robbie, he's been through the tough times, too, and knew where I was coming from," said Ficken. "He understood, and I think it helped me in the end."
Then there's the physical approach. Ficken said that Fitzgerald has the kickers do the same strength drills other players do, which he said not only built camaraderie, but did in fact make him stronger. And while leg strength didn't appear to be a major issue for Ficken - his 61.6-yard kickoff average was average for the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions' kickoff coverage was 10th.
Ficken said he's worked to fine tune his technique with his added strength, and appreciated the approach O'Brien brought to special teams, an area the coach admits needs improvement.
But Ficken knows that it still comes back to him.
"Last year I did have all the ability in the world, so it's probably just mental," said Ficken.
There's also support on the Penn State sidelines, as teammate Alex Butterworth assumed punting duties last season, averaging 37.4 yards per punt, last in the Big Ten.
But Butterworth landed 19 of his punts inside the 20 with just two touchbacks. He said he spent the offseason improving his drop technique, as he said a good drop is his best weapon to launch a good kick.
"Coach O'Brien, he gets really excited with a good punt, obviously, but a bad one? Yeah, I try to avoid him," said Butterworth, a senior. "Special teams is something he knows really well, and it's one of the things that surprised me when I got here."
Butterworth hopes to see more excitement out of O'Brien and Ficken, too.
"I kind of figured out that Sam is real serious about the kicking game, and keeping him loose makes him a better kicker than when he's serious," said Butterworth. "So we want to keep him loose, but with his game face on."