When Michigan kicker Matt Wile struggled in his first two games this season, he said it helped that his teammates were behind him.
That’s not quite as cliché as it may sound.
Sure, Wile’s fellow Wolverines told him not to worry when he missed three of four kicks from that dastardly right hash to start the season. They had his back after he went 0-for-2 in a shutout loss to Notre Dame in the metaphorical way good teammates should. They told him he was still their guy and he’d get the next one, and certainly that steadied the senior’s shaken confidence. What really helped, though, was when they got behind him in a more literal sense.
Michigan’s field goal practice this season has included a chorus of hecklers who stand a few feet behind Wile every time he lines up for a kick. They do their best to distract him, chirping the type of things they hope will make the buzz of 100,000 screaming fans fade in comparison. Dennis Norfleet, the team’s top punt returner/on-field break dancer, is usually the ring leader.
“Norfleet likes to be pretty loud,” Wile said. “They only ever succeed if they can make me laugh. ... They talk about my nonexistent hamster. I apparently have a hamster. I don’t know where that came from.”
Fictional hamsters aside, the wheels inside Wile’s head are now spinning at the right pace when he lines up for a kick. He's made seven of his eight attempts since losing to the Irish. He said the biggest adjustment during that stretch has been not psyching himself out. His only miss in the last five games was a 56-yard attempt that Rutgers freshman Kemoko Turay needed moonshoes to block.
“The guy from Rutgers made a great play,” Wile said. “I definitely would’ve liked to see how that turned out otherwise. I thought I hit it pretty well.”
In his last outing, an 18-13 win over Penn State, Wile made all three of his field goals, including a 42-yarder to tie the game in the third quarter and a 37-yarder to take the lead for good in the fourth. The game-tying kick was the closest Wile came to the right hash -- his mental sticking point earlier in the season -- against the Nittany Lions.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he starts the special-teams portion of practice by sending Wile down the right hash attempting kicks at different lengths. He didn’t claim to be Sigmund Freud in straightening out Wile's approach but said he’s made it a point to get the kicker to stop pressing if he starts to struggle in practice.
“If he misses a couple in a row, I’ll just tell him don’t overthink it,” Hoke said. “Sometimes he just flat-out overthinks it instead of just going up there and swinging your leg. I don’t know if you want to call that psychology.”
Wile does use a few tricks to keep himself mentally centered. If he feels doubt creeping in on the sideline, he visualizes the referee raising his arms after a successful kick. While he’s lining up, he’ll crunch his upper body into an awkward stance to remind himself to stay compact when he strikes the ball.
He has worked with a kicking specialist back in his hometown of San Diego to remove some kinks from his form. Most importantly, he says, he knows he has his teammates standing behind him.
“Now I don’t care where I kick from,” Wile said. “If I’m on the field, in my mind I’m going to make the kick.”