Nothing but him and the ball: How LSU placekicker Connor Culp blocks out the world when he lines up for a field goal
As Connor Culp began his approach, his mind went blank.
In his head, it wasn’t a 42-yard kick. There weren’t less than three minutes on the clock, and LSU wasn’t down two points to No. 10 Auburn, in the middle of the team’s biggest Southeastern Conference comeback in Tiger Stadium history.
His coach never said “We just don’t have a kicker” on his call-in radio show the previous week.
Culp wasn’t the fifth-ranked placekicker and a three-star prospect in the 2016 recruiting class.
All that mattered — all that existed — was the snap, the hold, his approach and a pair of uprights 18½ feet apart and 10 feet off the ground.
One step, two steps, plant and kick.
The process has been the same since the first time he lined up for a live field goal back home in Arizona.
Culp didn’t want to play football when he arrived at Desert Vista High School.
His mother tried to talk him into it at first. She thought it would be helpful to get to know more people, maybe make a few new friends.
But Culp played soccer the previous nine years and had no intention of giving it up. He could already see his summers slowly disappearing into wind sprints and tackling drills.
He resisted for a while, but eventually, Mom’s pushing became less of a suggestion and more of a demand.
“You need to go out (for the team) just for your freshman year,” she told him. “If you don’t like it, fine. But you’re going to do it one year.”
Despite his reluctance, Culp showed up for the first day of practice with the freshman team.
He bounced around, trying several positions. Listed at 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, defensive tackle was never in his future.
But with his experience in soccer, coach Ken Olson saw his raw potential as a kicker.
“He always had a natural fast leg,” Olson said. “He’s a pretty thick kid for a kicker. He was pretty good size, as far as a freshman, sophomore or junior. Probably toward the end of his sophomore year is when he started to grew as far as a dominant kickoff kid, but he was always a strong kid.”
Olson has been around plenty of great kickers in his years, most notably Jason Hanson, who spent two decades with the Detroit Lions. Olson worked with Hanson as a graduate assistant at Washington State.
Olson himself was a pro kicker, spending a few season with San Francisco and Buffalo during the 1987 strike season and several more years in the USFL and arena leagues.
He knew what it took to make a successful kicker, but still, Culp resisted.
That is, until he got into a live game.
Culp’s steps were short and choppy, and his technique was unrefined, but as he watched the ball sail through the uprights the first time he attempted a field goal — even before he attempted an extra point — he knew he found his place.
He doesn’t remember the opponent, but he does remember the picture of the ball traveling from the right hash mark directly down the center.
He also remembers it was a 43-yard kick, but only because teammates told him after.
Not knowing the distance on the kick is a trait he has kept to this day.
He’s going to kick it as far as he can, so as long as it’s straight, he’s either going to have the distance or he won’t. Knowing the distance beforehand doesn’t make much difference.
It’s a trick he picked up from Olson, who made players kick through a miniature goal post 8 feet apart he’d roll around practice, nicknamed “little yellow.”
LSU and many other programs have similar set ups on their practice fields.
“It’s just something I’m fortunate to have,” Culp said of his ability to block everything out. “Everything goes quiet. It’s just me and the ball. I don’t care what the snap looks like or the hold. For one, I’m very confident the snapper and holder are going to put it there every time. I just go out, take my steps back, look at the uprights and its go time.”
Culp needed his ability to block out the world this past weekend more than possibly any other time in his life.
LSU’s kickers, including Culp and Jack Gonsoulin, were under heavy criticism after the first five games.
The Tigers hit 3 of 7 attempts, prompting Orgeron’s harsh comments on his radio show.
Culp said he heard about Orgeron’s comments second-hand and never spoke to him about it. However, several teammates reached out after the Auburn game to congratulate him on what became the eventual game-winning kick.
“It was a shock,” Culp said. “It didn’t make me feel great. But I kind of took it with a grain of salt and said, ’Well, I’m going to prove you wrong.”
“I think ultimately it was beneficial for me because it really determined me to show him what Jack and I were capable of.”
Olson called Culp one of the few players he had who has been able to coach themselves when kicks go wrong.
Olson and Culp spoke several times during the season and Olson always felt he was calm and relaxed about the situation, whether it be the early kicking competitions or the Tigers’ general field goal troubles.
And so far, Culp’s cool demeanor and newfound determination seem to have paid off.
In the two games since Orgeron’s comments, Culp is a perfect 3 for 3 on field goals and 4 of 4 on extra points.
When asked after the game if he was nervous lining up for the go-ahead kick against Auburn, Orgeron said he “kind of believed he was going to make it today for some reason.”
He again supported Culp at his weekly press luncheon on Monday.
“I’m proud of Connor Culp. I’m really proud of him,” Orgeron said. “He went through some adversity, like we all do. He answered the bell. I felt like the first field goal he had it, because he has been kicking like that in practice. You could see his confidence level rise up. He’s been saying things in the meeting with confidence.”