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OU's Gabe Brkic has been right on target since stepping in as the team's kicker
Gabe Brkic doesn't seem to register pressure situations.
Oklahoma's redshirt freshman kicker has been put in tough positions this season, but he's already passed his test. Going into the national semifinal game at the Peach Bowl against LSU, he had connected on all 17 of his field-goal attempts, which set a school record. He's also the only FBS kicker this season to make all of his field-goal attempts and extra-point attempts (65 of 65).
It's an impressive run for Brkic, who didn't earn the starting job until week four when former kicker Calum Sutherland was dismissed from the team.
In the Big 12 Championship victory, he made all three tries that he attempted, which capped important scoring drives in the Sooners' 30-23 overtime victory over Baylor.
After OU claimed its fifth straight conference title, Brkic met the media for the first time this season. Head coach Lincoln Riley joked earlier this year that while he was trying to protect Brkic from media distractions, there might have been a little bit of superstition in his decision.
The bond between kicker and coach is very strong, Brkic said. Riley has plenty of trust in Brkic's abilities.
"It says a lot to me," Brkic said before shifting attention to his deep snapper (Kasey Kelleher) and holder (Connor McGinnis). "He's one of my biggest idols right now. I mean, I couldn't do it without Kasey and Connor, obviously. The trust I have in those two is awesome."
The trio is good friends.
Brkic often breaks the ice whether on the practice field or in a big game.
A good example is when he lined up for a 50-yard field goal in the Oct. 26 game at Kansas State. The Sooners needed a make to keep their comeback hopes alive.
When both teams were lined up and McGinnis looked at Brkic to make sure he was ready, the kicker joked back that the kick was "for the Super Bowl."
The wisecrack simply shows how the kicker is relaxed at pressure moments.
"That's just kind of his personality whether it’s a practice kick on a Tuesday before he kicks field goals or if it's a go-ahead kick against Baylor (in the regular-season)," said McGinnis. "He's a guy who isn't fazed by the moment and is pretty cool to see a young guy stepping into a role like that and being able to produce and perform."
Brkic is from Chardon, Ohio, where he made seven field goals of 40-yards plus in his senior season. He also took part in the Kohl's Kicking Camp, which also was a bridge for former OU kicker Austin Seibert.
Special teams coordinator Jay Boulware has a good relationship with the camp staff, who directed the coach to Brkic.
"We got him when he was a sophomore in 2015," said Luke Radke, Kohl's national lead coach and evaluator. "You looked for the intangibles like leg strength. Then you look at somebody like him, who could kick the ball far, and we told him to be a truly special player, you have to put the ball through the uprights."
Radke has been excited to see the run that Brkic currently is having.
"It's tremendous. It's one of those things that's really rare, especially following in the footsteps of Austin, who was a four-year starter on field goals and extra points," said Radke. "You aren't playing in front of 20,000 people. You are playing in front of 80,000-plus. And every game is important.
"You are chasing the College Football Playoff this year and you’ve been out the last number of years and you’re just thrown into that environment immediately. To come out smelling like roses -- or at least be productive thus far, I don't want to jinx him -- but he's had a tremendous start to the season, for sure."
Sutherland won the kicking position to start the season, but was suspended after an off-the-field situation.
"To be a replacement, I've had a good year," said Brkic. "I can't take it for granted. Every kick I make, that's it.”
Brkic admitted to being a little disappointed when he didn't win the job, but just put trust in the system that he would get an opportunity.
His final kick in the regular-season game at Baylor -- a 31-yarder with 1:45 remaining in a 34-31 victory -- secured the Sooners' biggest comeback in school history.
How much did that help him this season?
"It felt good to hit it. It felt good after, celebrated and everything, just it's a good confidence booster mid-season, close to the end of the season. I knew I could do it, know I could do more," said Brkic.
Is it hard not to get caught up in any pressure to stay perfect?
"Not at all. Every game I just come in to every game like it's a new game. I don't piggyback off the games before. Every week is a new week," said Brkic.
Perhaps the biggest head scratcher this season is why Brkic isn't up for the Lou Groza Award. He also wasn't named the All-Big 12 first-team kicker in a vote by coaches.
"I don't know what you have to do. That and kick the ball out of the end zone," said Riley. "That's how those things go. We try to caution our guys and say if your goals are centered around those things and there are times where you do everything you can and they just don't happen, you have to be careful. You have to take them with a grain of salt, good or bad."
Brkic spent his redshirt season being mentored by Seibert, which was a big advantage. He got to watch how the former OU kicker prepared at practices and games.
"Since he's been here, he's had a really big leg," said McGinnis. "He learned under Austin Seibert for a while, kind of the mental side of being a kicker, part of the preparation and kind of what it takes on a daily basis rather than just showing up and kicking on Saturday. He's matured quite a bit since then and he’s done a nice job."
The friendship with Seibert has paid dividends, Brkic said, and continues through this day.
"We text each other every week or two. I text him about the Browns, he texts me about here," said Brkic. "It's good. We've got a good relationship."
Kohl’s has younger high school kickers who can use Brkic's success as an inspiration, Radke noted
"He's a kid who's worked through it. He played at a smaller school and continued to get better and he loved the process," said Radke. "And that's one of the biggest things. One of the biggest traits that we look for is somebody who really loves it. There's going to be highs. There's going to be lows. There's going to be opportunities to get buried by it.
"If you are around long enough, you're going to miss some kicks and you're going to make some kicks. Obviously this year, he's made more than he's missed and he's doing a tremendous job of capitalizing on the opportunities that he's been given and it's been fun to see him kind of grab the spotlight and run with it."
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the December 2019 Playoff Preview Issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more or subscribe, call 405-364-4515)