GAINESVILLE, Fla. — To the extent that a kicker can be viewed as a high-profile recruit, Eddy Pineiro was exactly that for the Florida Gators after flipping from an earlier commitment to Alabama back in December.
Although he has never attempted a field goal in a live game at any level, the converted soccer player from Miami caught the attention of major college programs with his powerful leg and prowess from long-range.
He also caught the eye of former Gators kicker Caleb Sturgis — now with the Philadelphia Eagles — who took a special interest in Pineiro soon after he arrived on campus at Florida this past winter.
“He showed up one day in practice in the indoor facility. That’s pretty much where I met him, and I got his number and we started talking,” Pineiro recalled. “He says that I have a bright future here and just (to) just keep on doing what I’m doing, stay focused. So that’s how I created a relationship with him, and then he started flying in from Philadelphia just to train with me here in in the indoor.”
Pineiro said Sturgis flew down to Gainesville to work with him four or five times and that they talk about once a week. He’s also formed relationships with Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos, whom he met at a camp, and another accomplished former Gators kicker in Judd Davis — the 1993 Lou Groza Award winner.
“They’ve given me advice as in like, ‘Stay calm when you’re going to kick and don’t worry about the crowd, don’t worry about the cameras and just do what you know how to do,'” Pineiro said Tuesday.
While those three are all eager to see how the redshirt-sophomore rookie does this fall, so too are countless others both inside and outside the program hoping for vast improvement after the Gators made just 7-of-17 field goals last season.
And Pineiro realizes full well the optimism the fan base has attached to his right leg.
“Seeing them go through those kicking struggles last year was pretty depressing because Florida’s always been known for having good kickers like Caleb Sturgis and Judd Davis and stuff,” he said. “But I was very aware of it. That was part of my recruiting process.”
Even though Pineiro played in only seven high school football games while focusing on kickoffs and extra points before playing soccer at ASA College in Miami, one look at his YouTube videos and it’s easy to see why everybody’s excited about his potential.
But the question is how will the highly-touted newcomer do inside a full Ben Hill Griffin Stadium or in tough SEC road environments like Tennessee?
Gators head coach Jim McElwain knows that can’t be answered until it happens.
“He’s been (good) so far from what we’ve done, and there again there is no way to simulate what it’s going to be like come game time,” McElwain acknowledged. “He needs to learn to adapt to that and go out and kick. With each time, he’ll be able to get a little bit better as we go from there.”
Pineiro got a taste of kicking before a large crowd at Florida’s spring game — when he made 3-of-5 field goal attempts while hitting from 52, 46 and 56 yards and missing two others from beyond 50 yards — but he, too, knows that isn’t a true indicator for what he’ll experience on an actual game day.
That said, he doesn’t expect it to be anything he can’t handle.
“I think people exaggerate saying ‘Oh you know, like pressure in a game’ and this and that. But if you work on the same thing every single day, why can’t you do it in a game?” he said. “It’s called muscle memory when it comes to kicking. You should be able to put a blindfold on and kick it because it’s the same kick every single time. It’s muscle memory. …
“I guess I’ll say I embrace (the game day atmosphere) because it’s a good feeling when you have people saying ‘ED-DY, ED-DY.’ So, yeah, but I mean I don’t really pay too much attention to it. I just focus on the ball right before I kick it and I don’t focus on anything (else). I don’t focus on the guys running at me. I don’t focus on people screaming at me. I just focus on (holder Johnny Townsend’s) finger, where his hand is and I just kick it.”
One of McElwain’s oft-cited concepts is simulating chaos of some sort for his players to work through in practice, and while he admits there’s no true simulation for what a kicker faces in a pivotal moment of a tense game, that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried to fluster Pineiro this month.
The kicker said the coaches have had the whole team gather around him at the end of practices as he kicks field goals, screaming in his ear, throwing water in his face, anything to try to get him off-balance.
And how has that gone?
“So far I’m like 4-for-4 on those, whatever you want to call them, pressure kicks. So he’s happy about that,” Pineiro said.
The main technical critique the coaches have had for Pineiro is trying to speed up his pre-kick routine and be aware of the limited time to get a kick off in a game, but overall the assessments have been encouraging.
Pineiro said he’s “gone almost pretty much perfect” on his short to moderate kicks this preseason while missing only a couple of long ones.
Going back to that notion of the added pressure he’ll face starting with the Sept. 3 season opener against Massachusetts, Pineiro countered with a different perspective.
He thought beyond football. He thought of his father, who makes a living for the entire family installing kitchens.
That, he says, is what keeps him grounded in the moment as much as anything.
“My confidence comes from my family, just knowing the struggles they’ve been through and the struggles that they’ve gone through in their lives trying to help me to be a good kicker, waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and taking me to practice and stuff,” Pineiro said.
“They say (there’s) pressure on kickers. You want to know pressure? Pressure is my dad going to work every single day and he’s the only one that brings money into my house. So that’s pressure.”
Ryan Young is a Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.