When Jack Willoughby’s 20-yard kick sailed through the uprights on Saturday, it was not just the first field goal he made in five years of college — it was the first he made in a game, ever.
Willoughby, a former soccer player who walked on to the Duke football team in 2011, had never kicked a football until the summer after his high-school graduation. When he did learn how to do it, his coaching came in the form of an instructional DVD he purchased.
While soccer was his sport of choice, football was his passion, and the Princeton, New Jersey, product saw an opportunity to contribute down the line for the Blue Devils.
“My grandpa played college football, and I grew up a big college football fan,” Willoughby said. “I thought there was a chance to play college soccer at Duke, but I saw an opportunity to make the transition after high school.”
Willoughby’s big leg enabled him to stick around on the Duke team and become its kickoff specialist, kicking off in three games in 2013 and all 13 the following year.
However, with an All-American kicker in Ross Martin firmly in place as the placekicker, Willoughby knew his opportunity to kick field goals would likely only come elsewhere.
“I decided during my (redshirt junior) season at Duke that I wanted to transfer. It was kind of a multistep decision,” he said. “First of all, do I want to play a fifth year of football or do I want to enter the working world? That was probably the hardest decision. Then after I made up my mind there, I decided that I wanted to leave Duke.”
Willoughby said he put together a highlight tape that he mailed to coaches around the country to try to find interested schools, one of which ended up being Ohio State. Between the Buckeyes’ standing as defending national champions and a shaky kicking situation — last year’s starter Sean Nuernberger missed seven of his 20 attempts during his freshman year — Willoughby, who resides in his family’s home in Juno, Alaska, in the offseason, made the choice to move to Columbus in April.
“I think Ohio State might’ve looked at me because of the role I could fill on kickoff, but for me it was about field goals as well,” he said. “If I wanted to just be a kickoff guy, I would’ve stayed at Duke.”
Willoughby turned heads as a potential starting placekicker for the Buckeyes in August when he made back-to-back 60-yard kicks in practice.
Now entrenched in a weekly one-on-one battle with Nuernberger, Willoughby has gotten the nod from coach Urban Meyer in each of OSU’s first two games.
Things have not started great for the redshirt senior, as his first collegiate field goal attempt in OSU’s opener at Virginia Tech was a 43-yard attempt that went wide.
While he raised his field goal percentage to 50 percent with the 20-yard make during the Buckeyes’ second game against Hawaii, two of his seven kickoffs went out of bounds for a penalty.
Meyer said he has not been happy with the mixed performance by the kicker so far, especially on kickoffs.
“We’re still not settled,” Meyer said. “Jack is — we had two penalties on kickoff, and that’s got to be addressed and got to get fixed.”
As far as the issue of the kickoffs goes, Willoughby said he has been his own biggest critic.
“I hold myself to a higher standard than to ever kick the ball out of bounds,” Willoughby said. “It’s definitely something I try not to beat myself up about, but I consider it unacceptable.”
Whether he holds the starting kicker job from week to week or loses it to Nuernberger, Willoughby said coming to OSU has already been a worthwhile decision.
“Clearly here, the tradition, the fans, the scale of a lot of what we do is at a slightly different level to me,” Willoughby said. “But if you ask guys why they really play the game, it’s for their teammates, for their coaches, and those things don’t really change here or at Duke, smaller places.”