PROVO Because BYU signed a kicker who was a prep All-America at Bingham High, a guy who booted a state-record 62-yard field goal, a guy whom coach Bronco Mendenhall has said "can kick it a mile," it would be easy to presume that Justin Sorensen would have the Cougar kicking chores all sewn up.
But that would simply be a presumption. That's because incumbent Mitch Payne hasn't given up his job without a fight. In fact, the sophomore kicker has been one of the biggest surprises of fall camp.
"There's no lock for Justin," said kickers coach Paul Tidwell. "He's got to earn the spot. He has to be more consistent with his kicks."
For the Cougars, it means they have two talented kickers.
Payne was hampered by a painful torn groin muscle throughout the season a year ago. The injury was bad enough that the Cougars rarely attempted field goals in 2007. Still, Payne connected on 10 of 14 field goals, including three crucial ones against Utah last November.
"I was fortunate to be able to kick last year," Payne said. "It hurt. It would bring tears to my eyes when I'd kick."
But with the 2008 campaign quickly approaching, Payne, who booted a 55-yard field goal during a recent scrimmage, is healthy. What's more, knowing that BYU had signed Sorensen, he's had even more motivation during the off-season.
"Mitch has really worked hard," Tidwell said. "You know what competition does it makes us all better. He knew this young All-American was coming in, so Mitch worked really hard in the offseason. He's getting the ball up quicker and getting it elevated better. He's competing."
"Mitch is more confident and more consistent day-in and day-out," said Mendenhall. "I think the competition has helped that."
"I've known that he's coming for a long time," said Payne of Sorensen. "It pushed me in the off-season to be better and prepared me for this year."
During fall camp, Payne and Sorensen have been competing, but it's a friendly competition.
"It's really exciting that he and Justin are friends already and encouraging each other and are team players," Tidwell said. "They're competing with each other. That's the way it should be."
"We help each other get a lot better. It's been fun to have someone to kick with," Sorensen said. "At Bingham, that wasn't really the case. Mitch is a really cool guy. It's nice to have someone there. If you have a bad day, they can encourage you and help you figure out what you're doing wrong."
Said Payne, "We're pushing each other to be better. Our kicking game will be much improved."
It's likely that the Cougars will utilize both kickers this season, capitalizing on each of their strengths. Sorensen and his powerful leg may handle kickoffs while Payne could take care of PATs and field goal attempts.
"We have options," said Mendenhall.
Sorensen has struggled with his field goal accuracy at times during fall camp, but that has something to do with the fact he suffered a serious ankle sprain last January and wasn't able to kick until late June. "I kept trying to get back into things sooner than I was supposed to," Sorensen said. "It made it worse. I've only been kicking since the end of June. Not a real long time."
Mendenhall likes Sorensen's attitude and moxie. "His personality is one that exudes confidence, which is something I feel comfortable with anyone kicking the football in those situations," he said. "He's confident in his abilities."
Payne, meanwhile, is eager to show what he can do now that he's healthy. His older brother, former Cougar Matt Payne, lives near Ogden and works in the pharmaceutical industry. The two kick together during the off-season."He's helped me," Mitch said of Matt. "It's great to have a good, positive support out there. He's someone who calls me and checks up on me. When he played here, I was his biggest fan. Now he's my biggest fan."