Fourth-and-10 at the opposing 41-yard line could be described as “no man’s land” for an offense. Your first thought might be to punt and try to pin your opponent near its own goal line. Or maybe you go for it, counting on your defense to step up if you come up short.
Not many college teams would consider trotting out their kicker to attempt a 59-yard field goal. But that’s exactly what Notre Dame did last weekend against Central Michigan. Graduate student Spencer Shrader has only been on campus for a few months, yet he might just be the most trusted player on the Irish football team.
Shrader and first-year special teams coordinator Marty Biagi both arrived in South Bend during the summer. One of the first items on Biagi’s to-do list was determining what kind of range his new kicker possessed.
“We always start close up,” Biagi said about evaluating kickers. “We work backward to see where his comfort zone is.”
Apparently, they didn’t stop moving back for quite some time. Through the first four games of the season, Shrader has received the type of green light on long field goal attempts that is typically reserved for NFL kickers.
“We don’t sit there and try and put a specific number on it, but he’s perfectly capable [of making long field goals],” Biagi said. “He’s kicked all the way back to 60, 65 yards, even a little further.”
No athlete is ever really a finished product, especially at the college level. But for Shrader, who arrived at Notre Dame having already made 28 career field goals as a multi-year starter at USF, opportunities for growth are more subtle than they might be for an 18-year-old freshman.
“I think the main thing is the mentality,” Shrader said about how he’s improved during his time with the Irish. “Really, there’s no specific technique or form that’s necessarily going to help you have that distance. It’s just having the confidence in yourself that you can go out and execute a kick from 59 yards the same as you would do an extra point.”
The 59-yard attempt was ultimately no good, and Shrader’s current stat line — three-for-six on field goal attempts — sounds closer to average than elite. But while numbers don’t lie, they can mislead. And a deeper dive is needed to tell the full story of his performance this season.
All three of Shrader’s misses have come from over 40 yards. Two of them, the 59-yarder and a 56-yard attempt against NC State that bounced off the left upright, missed from well beyond that mark.
His makes have also come with a high degree of difficulty. Shrader connected from 50 yards later in the game against Central Michigan. Most notably, he drilled a 54-yarder in wet conditions against the Wolfpack that gave him the longest field goal in Notre Dame history.
Even in a short time, Shrader has developed strong bonds with his new teammates. That off-the-field connection is a big part of what has made his transition to Notre Dame so seamless. And it’s what made his record-breaking kick that much sweeter.
“That was a really cool moment. [I’m] very, very blessed to have the privilege of having a record like that at such a prestigious university,” he said. “But the thing that meant the most to me was my teammates’ support and their reaction when [head] Coach [Marcus] Freeman announced it in front of the team. That made it more special. The individual achievement is great, but it’s doing something for the team and for the guys around me.”
So what actually goes into Shrader’s new and improved mentality? What gives his coaches and teammates complete confidence in his ability to put the ball between the uprights every time he steps on the field, even from more than 50 yards away?
It starts with treating every kick equally, as best he can.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was aware of the distance — I am,” Shrader said. “But my approach, my mentality, is pretty much the exact same.”
He then eliminates the high stakes from his mind, instead focusing on repeating the same mechanics he’s been fine-tuning for years.
“I try to stay as focused as I can and just treat each individual kick for what it’s worth. You feel the environment, but it’s almost like a haze around you. And so it’s hard to imagine that each individual fan is a person that either wants you to succeed or wants you to fail,” he said. “You kind of just block it out and get as much into a mindset of perfect execution as you can.”
Finally, he feeds off the aforementioned energy from his teammates, letting their trust in him fuel his own self-belief.
“My mindset and my work ethic have shifted a little bit because I love being part of this team so much. I love my teammates so much that I think about working hard for them,” Shrader said. “I couldn’t care less about what’s next for me. I’m only focused on the moment. I just love competing with these guys, and I want to work hard for these guys. And so that’s the coolest part about it.”
If Saturday’s showdown with No. 6 Ohio State comes down to a late kick with everything on the line (as big games often do), Irish fans can be confident in Shrader’s ability to stay calm and rise to the occasion. After all, his teammates and coaches certainly are.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking, and it’s a big game. But at the end of the day, it’s just such a blessing to be here,” Shrader said.