Duck senior says his confidence, mental game have improved

by: COURTESY OF LARRY PLACIDO - Oregon Ducks senior Alejandro Maldonado is battling to retain his job as the teams No. 1 place-kickerEUGENE — Alejandro Maldonado hopes his ignominious kicks have been left in the past.

The young man from Colton, Calif., has done his best to forget about the missed potential tying 37-yard field goal against USC in 2011 and the two missed field goals — including a 41-yarder in overtime — against Stanford in 2012. The Ducks saw their national championship game hopes vanish with both losses.

Maldonado enters his senior season in competition with freshman Matt Wogan for place-kicking duties when camp begins Monday. He says the missed kicks won’t linger in the minds of coaches, adding that it’s been an open competition for the job, anyway.

“Usually they chart it (in practice),” he says. “If I have bad kickoffs, I’m not the guy (who plays). If I have the most missed field goals, I’m not the guy. It’s that simple.”

The 5-10, 185-pound Maldonado has matured and taken on the mentality needed to be the kicker — or punter: You’ve got to forget the bad moments, quickly.

“It’s something crazy that you put yourself in,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be a kicker, putting yourself in front of thousands of fans. It takes a person who’s tough and really mentally tough and who has a drive to do it.”

Coaches and players have talked with him about his key misses, and tell him the obvious: Other things lead to losses, not just missed kicks.

“Brush it off and move forward,” he says. “You can’t give up.

“I’ve been working on my confidence, telling myself I’m going to have a good season. I’m confident that I am. I’ve been doing it for so long ... it’s not easy to say it, but it’s second nature. ... I really want to make an impact for the team and for myself. I know what I’m capable of. I just have to relax. I’ve been doing some reading about mental approach. It’s given me an edge, it’s good for me.”

Maldonado and Wogan also will compete to be the punter, along with Dylan Ausherman. The 6-2, 195-pound Wogan, from Indian Trail, N.C., will challenge Maldonado, who has made 10 of 18 field goal attempts in two years as UO’s kicker. He was a USA Today and Parade magazine first-team All-American, with a 43.6-yard punting average and 11-of-16 record on field goals in his senior prep season.

“I’m impressed with him,” Maldonado says. Hayden Crook will be another kicking candidate, although it’ll be tough for him to beat out scholarship players.

Maldonado realizes there will be doubts about UO’s kicking game, especially after

his key misses in the past two seasons.

“You can’t listen to whoever doubts you,” he says. “They’re going to hate. You’ve got to love your haters and move on.”

• Tight end Colt Lyerla, who’s on the John Mackey Award watch list, envisions a bigger role for the Ducks, as an upperclassman and supreme athlete. He has 12 TD receptions (and a rushing score) in two seasons. He has shed some weight, saying recently he weighs about 257 pounds, to be quicker and harder for defenders to catch in the open field, “which really bugged me.”

The former Hillsboro High star also wants to continue playing on special teams. It’s assumed that the 6-5 junior could have played linebacker or defensive end at the Pac-12 level, and stood out.

NFL teams look for players who can be used on special teams. Lyerla, one of a handful of NFL-caliber UO third-year players (Marcus Mariota, De’Anthony Thomas, Jake Fisher, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are others), says this about his NFL future:

“It’s just one of those things you can’t really decide or think about until the exact time comes. Every college player talks about playing in the NFL — the sooner the better — but there are more important things to get done. The season is one of them, and we still have the national championship on the line. And all of us have school. After the season, in January, I’ll be thinking about (the NFL) more.”

• Lyerla says he has thought about an Oregon matchup with an SEC team for the national championship. Alabama? Texas A&M? South Carolina? LSU?

The Ducks have been close to making the big game the past two seasons — after losing to Auburn in the January 2011 BCS finale.

“That’s the feeling around the program, because we fell short a little bit the past two years,” he says. “We really want to get there, especially against a big SEC team — two completely different types of teams playing against each other in the national championship would be so great. It’s got to be something to aim for. We definitely have the talent, we’ve just got to put it together.”

• The Ducks have been proclaimed favorites in the Pac-12, ahead of Stanford.

Sounds about right, wide receiver B.J. Kelley says.

“We feel like we’re going to be the best every year, and we’re going to work to be the best every year,” he says. “In my eyes, we’re going to be the team to beat again.”

Says Ekpre-Olomu: “I’m never expecting to lose a game. I’m always expecting us to go undefeated. We’re going to play every game like we’re supposed to be the team to beat. When the games come, we’ll be ready to play.”

• The Ducks’ recruiting scandal and case with the NCAA has been settled, with the football program receiving minor penalties, including three-year probation.

Linebacker Rodney Hardrick did not take notice.

“I can’t speak for everyone, but I didn’t know about anything,” he says. “I don’t worry about that stuff. We don’t know anything. We don’t talk about it as a group.”

What if there had been a bowl ban?

“We would have played the hand we were dealt,” Hardrick says. “We just stick together as a team.”

Says Mariota: “The coaches, they made sure that we didn’t worry about it.”

• It sounds as though first-year head coach Mark Helfrich will stick with the proven formula of winning — Chip Kelly’s.

“We’re going to talk the same, work the same, practice the same,” Helfrich says. “We’re going to tweak the margins; we have guys that grow up, get better. ...

“We’re different guys,” he adds, of himself and Kelly, “and we walk differently and talk differently and that’s fine. We’re going to tone what we have done from a program standpoint. We’re going to continue to be innovative, attack and get better in every facet of our program every year.”

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