For the long haul, Maryland's Brad Craddock may or may not be the best kicker in college football. His head coach, Randy Edsall, called him that over the weekend. There are 128 teams in FBS, so I'd guess there are about 250 kickers currently rostered at the same competition level as Craddock, give or take. I haven't watched all of them, so I can't say authoritatively that Edsall is correct, because there are a ton of collegiate athletes who kick footballs for scholarships. And calling someone the "best" at something is sort of subjective, because evaluation endpoints are totally arbitrary.
To that end, so far in 2014, Craddock has been the best kicker in the country. I don't know what Craddock will do going forward, but there is no contesting what he's done this year. His performance through the first half of the season has been nothing short of marvelous, and he deserves to be the season's midway favorite for the Groza Award, given annually to the country's top kicker. Will he win it? I don't know. But if they gave out such awards after six games, he would. And I'm not sure there's any strong argument to the contrary (but more on that a bit down the page).
Craddock has been so reliable for the last year and change it's easy to forget where he came from. Not in terms of geography – his Australian roots are well-documented – but in terms of kicking footballs through uprights. Craddock has always had a big leg, but he struggled badly as a freshman in 2012 and took plenty of heat for it.
Recall Maryland's homecoming that year, the sixth game of the season, against North Carolina State. The Terps had lost backup-turned-starting quarterback Perry Hills to a torn ACL earlier in the game, then his backup, Devin Burns, later on. Down two points, third-stringer Caleb Rowe entered the game with less than a minute left and somehow guided the offense to within range for a 33-yard field goal try by Craddock. Then, this (watch at your own risk):
From there, the unfair narrative more or less wrote itself. Craddock had missed the kick, and the Terps were 4-3 instead of 5-2. They would lose their last healthy quarterback, Rowe, in a game at Boston College the next week, the same day on which Craddock had to share kicking duties with walk-on Brendan Magistro. The Terps started a linebacker at quarterback for the final four games. They would not win any of them. Craddock's ugly miss was a convenient line of demarcation between the season's promising start and devastating conclusion.
Craddock finished that freshman campaign 10-of-16 on field goals (62.5 percent) and 23-of-25 on extra points. He wasn't good, but he wasn't far out of line from what a program should expect from a freshman kicker. There are a lot of terrible kickers in college football, and even in his worst year, Craddock was better than many. Still, he needed to be much better.
He took a marked step forward the next year, hitting on 21 of 25 field goals (84 percent) and 37 of 38 extra points. He missed one kick from inside 40 yards, down from four as a freshman. He wasn't outstanding, but he was rock solid.
This season, he's exploded into, again, the best kicker in college football. That's a lot of kickers, and this is a pretty aggressive claim, so I'll get to explaining why it's true. Let's have some fun with stats:
- Craddock is one of eight kickers nationally to have not missed a field goal this season. He is 11-for-11, which isn't functionally different than the 12-for-12 lines of Florida State's Roberto Aguayo and Houston's Kyle Bullard. To be fair, it also isn't much different than the 9-for-9 boasted by Pitt's Chris Blewitt. You can only make the kicks you take, and Craddock has made all of them.
- Craddock is 7-of-7 this season from beyond 40 yards. Aguayo has only had to make five field goals from beyond 40 yards, because he plays for Florida State, which doesn't typically make a habit of stalling on drives around the 25-yard line. Again, to be fair, you can only make the kicks you take. But Craddock has had a greater degree of difficulty more often than Aguayo. Houston's Bullard is 6-of-6 from beyond 40 yards, which is terrific, if one fewer than Craddock.
- Bullard has had exactly one game with a longest-make of more than 42 yards. Aguayo has two games with a make of more than 37 yards. How about Craddock? He's kicked a field goal of 44 yards or longer in five different games this season. That's absolutely absurd for a college kicker. If you want consistency with a high degree of difficulty, Craddock's your man.
- Craddock's 57-yard make against Ohio State was the second-longest made attempt in college football this season. Indiana's Griffin Oakes made a 58-yarder against Maryland at the end of September, but other than that, nobody else has even eclipsed 54 yards. Aguayo's longest make? 52 yards. Bullard's longest make? 51 yards. Craddock's longest field goal, therefore, was from about a 10 percent greater distance than either Bullard's or Aguayo's. It's a little short-sighted to boil this down to three candidates, though, so let's be fair and note that Pitt's Blewitt hasn't hit from more than 49 yards. Neither has Duke's Ross Martin, another kicker who hasn't missed this year. In fact, of all the kickers who have made field goals of more than 52 yards this year, the next-highest overall success rate after Craddock's 100 percent is 78.6 percent. That's a big gulf, and it suggests Craddock has a combination of both a rocket for a leg and good accuracy that others don't have.
- Interestingly, none of the three kickers I've focused on here – Craddock, Aguayo and Bullard – are at the top of college football's touchback percentage leaderboard on kickoffs. Craddock does have Maryland ranking the highest, though, of any of the three teams they represent, at 42 percent touchbacks. Florida State is at 41 percent and Houston at 31 percent. Admittedly, this stat is unscientific, as wind conditions play an enormous role in which kickoffs go for touchbacks (and, as Bud Elliott points out in the comments, not every team shoots for touchbacks on its kickoffs).
- This, though, is perfectly scientific: Craddock leads the country in field goals and field goal percentage (tied, as mentioned) from beyond 40 yards. He's made the hardest kicks in the sport more often and at a higher rate than everybody else.
- For whatever it's worth, Craddock could absolutely kick in the NFL right now. If he were playing professionally, his 57-yarder would be the second-highest long distance in the league. Exactly one NFL kicker has made a field goal as long as Craddock's this season, and exactly zero have made more field goals from more than 40 yards (again, to be fair, in one fewer game).
Feel free to toy around with the leaderboards at CFBstats and ESPN, which should lead you to the same conclusion, no matter how you decide to sort stats. Plenty of season is left to be played. Kicks can be missed and made, and outlooks can change. But from what we've seen so far in 2014, the best kicker in college football is located in College Park.
When Craddock was a freshman, I remember watching him lie on the field for what felt like 30 minutes after his miss cost Maryland that homecoming game against North Carolina State. I remember all the muttering and cursing directed his way by fans streaming out of the stadium. When Craddock met with the media after the Ohio State game, I asked him what was different about him now from the freshman who missed that chip shot.
"It's really different. It's just like a confidence, I guess," Craddock said. "I'm confident in my technique, which is the biggest thing, and I expect to do it, whereas a freshman I didn't have that. It's very different."
When he came to Maryland, Craddock had a background as a punter. Now, he works a lot with former Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover as he refines that kicking approach.
"He's a perfectionist," Edsall said before the game. "He's a guy that isn't going to stand for himself being inconsistent. He's going to find a way to work through it and he's going to listen and be coachable and study it and get it figured out."
For now, he's not only a perfectionist. In kicking field goals, he's actually perfect. Success can be fleeting, but at this moment, we can call Craddock what he is – the best kicker in college football.