MOULTRIE – To watch Ryan Fitzgerald swing the kicking leg over and over – be it in football practice or real-game situations – it was akin to the swing of a golf club by Tiger Woods. The results are usually eye-popping.
Now with Florida State University, Fitzgerald ended his Colquitt County High’s placekicking career as arguably the greatest ever in prep football anywhere. Just in his senior season alone, he set the Georgia record with 22 made field goals and converted all 67 PAT tries. His career total of 51 field goals also sets a new state standard, as is the five he made in the state semifinals vs. Archer.
Therefore, if there are any glaring holes to fill for the next Packer football season, this is where it is. Let it not be forgotten the kickoff after kickoff that sailed way over the end zone, sometimes even splitting the uprights.
Troy Hobbs was the special teams coordinator for the 2018 season, and he retains that role under first-year head coach Justin Rogers. The Colquitt County roster one season ago carried more than just the one kicker, but there’s no doubt where a lion’s share of the work for games went. Still, those backups were at every practice alongside Fitzgerald getting in the same amount of preparation. After all, they knew their time was going to arrive … it has arrived.
In discussing the kicking situation, Hobbs even referenced Fitzgerald’s predecessor and that the Packer coaching staff – going back to 2016, before Hobbs’ tenure in Moultrie began – had to wonder how it was going to replace ‘Baby Lou’ Martinez. Fitzgerald, after a rough start, proved to be more than adequate.
“Who’s going to be next?” Hobbs posed. “Ryan and ‘Baby Lou’ set the standards here for kickers.
“We have a good group of guys, Alex Romulo, Emmanuel Perez, and a couple of younger guys who just came out with us. They have the potential to be pretty good. Can’t say ‘Baby Lou’ or Ryan Fitzgerald good just yet.
“Special teams is that third phase of the game, and it’s my job as coordinator to make sure we are still doing everything right so that phase won’t slip. Ryan last year was a big part of that puzzle. Every day we are working on it to get better, trying to find that right mix.”
Romulo and Perez, in their chances last season, kept Colquitt County perfect in the PAT department. Romulo made good on all four of his tries, and Perez was 1-for-1. Neither one, however, attempted a three-point field goal. Romulo was good on a 21-yard attempt Saturday when the Packers scrimmaged each other on Tom White Field at Mack Tharpe Stadium.
The unique thing about football kickers in high school is they usually do their own practicing aside from all the offensive and defensive poundings. At the end of practices, the coaches will call for PAT or field goals, and Hobbs said the kickers know enough to just jump right in and do that one job.
“During a game week, I will talk to them and let them know what we are expecting,” said Hobbs. “What we are thinking. What kind of kicks we are wanting. We have a group of guys who understand what their roles, so when it’s time to go to practice, they are ready to perform.”
In that same intra-squad scrimmage, Romulo and Perez were solid in the PAT tries. Packer fans know for certain how competitive games such as those in the playoffs can be decided by three points or less. Milton defeated Colquitt in the Class 7A finals by one point, 14-13, and that aforementioned Archer semifinal was a 22-21 win in overtime.
“We are going to work that every day at the end of practice,” said Hobbs. He said, in speaking with Rogers when the new coach took over, he wanted to see that continue as part of the routine. “We need to do extra-point and field goal every day. Those guys need more work than anything because they didn’t really kick in a game situation. They did in mop-up things.”
On Tuesday, when the Packers practiced outside on the new turf field at the high school campus, the session ended with “pressure kicks.” Both Romulo and Perez made field goals – uncontested – from around 40 yards out.
“That’s big right now,” said Hobbs. “We are trying to build confidence in both of those guys.”
What kind of results, then, can fans expect in kickoffs?
“I will be thankful if we kick it two yards in the end zone,” said Hobbs. “I know we won’t be able to drive the ball out of the back right now. At the scrimmage, Romulo had two good kickoffs in the end zone. That’s a touchback. I don’t know if we will get it through the uprights, but if we get a chance and I think one of them can, we may go for it.”
One final contribution the Packers will miss from Fitzgerald is his punting. He averaged 41 yards punting 41 times. The frontrunner for that job is backup quarterback Tucker Pitts, though Hobbs said Perez is also in the competition.
“To us, (punting) is the biggest in special teams,” said Hobbs. “If you can’t win on the punt team – you get a punt blocked – that can change the game. That will be the first thing we do in the summer. Both of them have to understand our alignment on punt teams and exactly where we want to punt. The last couple of years people didn’t get returns because of how we punted the ball.”
And there can be no more evidence of how much a team puts into special teams than having the long snapper carry his own renown. Fitzgerald had great success with Noah Hightower in 2017 and Kaleb Spradley in 2018. Hobbs said right now that job is all rising junior Max Parker’s.
“I’m on him every day,” said Hobbs. “We cannot kick an extra point and we cannot punt … it all starts with him. If his snaps are not good, we can’t do anything. He has worked since last year after being behind Spradley to get to this point. He’s gone to several camps, won a couple of awards for his long snapping ability. He is doing everything we need him to do.”