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Thursday, September 15, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

UW Football

Cool and confident, Knudson gets his kicks

Seattle Times staff reporter

Teammates of Washington kicker Evan Knudson say appearances don't deceive.

"He looks like the surfer boy, laid back guy, and he is," said quarterback Casey Paus, Knudson's holder on field goals.

Maybe. But at times in his UW career, the quick smile and easygoing manner masked a bundle of nerves.

Take last year's opener against Fresno State, when Knudson was appointed the team's starter a few days before but knew he had a precarious hold on the position.

"I came in so uptight about the whole situation," Knudson said. "I wasn't mentally prepared at all."

The result was two missed field goals inside 40 yards and the loss of his job to Michael Braunstein.

But when Braunstein couldn't hold onto the job, Knudson got another shot.

And when he made the first attempt of his second chance in about the most intimidating setting possible — a 41-yarder at Oregon's Autzen Stadium — a switch came on.

Or maybe more accurately, turned off.

"After I made that first kick, I just stopped worrying about everything," Knudson said. "When I'm more relaxed, the ball just comes off my foot better."

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And suddenly feeling emboldened, Knudson has been almost flawless since.

He made 7 of 8 to finish last season, held off a challenge from Braunstein and true freshman Ryan Perkins this fall to keep the job, and he has made both of his field-goal attempts this season to serve as one of the bright spots of UW's dismal start.

He tied a career high Saturday against California with a 46-yard field goal into a slight wind that looked as if it had at least 5 yards to spare and inspired TV commentators to opine that Knudson has a much stronger leg than in the past. Knudson is using that seemingly stronger leg to also handle kickoff duties, something reserved for punter Sean Douglas last year.

But while Knudson said he has worked on his leg strength, "my kicking is all mental now. It's all about confidence."

UW coach Tyrone Willingham said simply that, "Evan Knudson is doing a fine job."

Not much, maybe, but more than Knudson sometimes heard in the past when coaches seemed to keep trying to clear the way for someone else.

Knudson is a graduate of North Thurston High School in Lacey, where he was the goalie of the soccer team for four years. His goal, in fact, was to play soccer at UW — he didn't play high-school football until his senior year.

But the Huskies had enough goalies, and he decided he didn't want to play soccer somewhere else; he is the younger half-brother of former UW punter Channing Wyles and always had his sights set on attending UW.

So he walked onto the football team in 2001, spending two years as a backup to John Anderson. But when Anderson left, the Huskies gave a scholarship to Braunstein, which most figured meant he'd win the job. Knudson, however, beat him out in 2003, seeming to cement the job with a 46-yarder in the opener at Ohio State.

But in the middle of the season, he had three field goals blocked in a shocking home loss to Nevada. Coaches immediately began tinkering with his form to increase the height of his kicks. Knudson admits he needed to improve, but said changing in mid-stream wasn't easy and resulted in a loss of comfort and confidence that lasted until he lost the job at the beginning of last season.

"When you change something you're so used to, you start to think about it," Knudson said.

By then, the Huskies had a commitment from Perkins, who in a twist is also a graduate of North Thurston and succeeded Knudson as the soccer team's goalie.

That meant Knudson — still a walk-on — had to compete against two scholarship kickers to keep the job this fall.

But Knudson said he didn't feel the pressure.

"I just came in with a whole different attitude," he said. "I had done what I needed to do over the summer, so I wasn't going to worry about it."

On the Tuesday before the Air Force game, he got the word that the job was his — and this time, he said, with no conditions that a missed kick or two would result in heading back to the bench.

"The coaches this year are 100 percent behind me, which is nice," he said. "When they say 'you are our guy' that gives you a huge vote of confidence."

There's still no scholarship, though he's hoping maybe that will change by the time school starts in a couple of weeks.

Either way, he said he'll graduate with a degree in psychology in December, having learned as much about the vagaries of the human mind on the field as he has off of it.

"Maybe," he said with a laugh, "I should do a thesis on myself."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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