Mike Nugent was not used to being home at this time of year. After becoming a beloved place kicker as a Buckeye and playing for four seasons with the New York Jets in the NFL, Nugent was in an unfamiliar place last season.
He was sitting at home on his couch in Columbus, watching NFL games on Sundays with his brother, Kevin.
“He’d kind of been the man since high school and college, so it was definitely a reality check,” Kevin said.
What a difference a year makes. Nugent is now the starting kicker for the Cincinnati Bengals and received the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month award for September.
“I was working with my coaches a lot, but we didn’t re-invent the wheel or anything,” Nugent said. “We made a few changes here and there, and I feel like I’ve been hitting the ball much more consistently.”
Although his recent success shouldn’t come as a surprise to any Ohio State follower, the inconsistencies and unemployment issues he suffered through a year ago certainly could have.
At OSU, Nugent was automatic. He holds the school record for field goal percentage for a career (82 percent) and a season (89 percent in 2002). His most accurate season coincided with the Buckeyes’ last National Championship win 2003.
“My favorite memory was the National Championship game because we were big underdogs,” Nugent said. “It’s great going into a game knowing that you have nothing to lose. And to come out on top, that was definitely my greatest memory at Ohio State.”
Nugent’s accuracy wasn’t the only trait that OSU fans loved about him. He was also clutch when the game was on the line.
In fact, approaching any hardcore Buckeye fan and saying the words “55 yards against Marshall” will immediately conjure up images of a game-winning kick in 2004.
“For OSU fans it was unexpectedly close at 21-21, and he kicks a 55-yard field goal on the last play of the game to win the game,” said Jack Park, OSU football historian. “He was accurate, dependable, could kick from a long distance, and is a very likeable person.”
Kevin Nugent, a former OSU men’s soccer player, mentioned that kick as one of his favorites.
“As far as a single kick, the one that sticks out in my mind was the kick against Marshall in his senior year,” he said.
When Nugent’s OSU career ended, he entered the 2005 NFL Draft. The Jets desperately needed an accurate kicker.
Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs that year, Jets incumbent Doug Brien missed two consecutive game-winning field goals. The Steelers went on to win the game in overtime, and the Jets were out of the playoffs.
Hoping to avoid having similar issues the following season, the Jets selected Nugent in the second round of the draft (47th overall). It was the highest position of any kicker selected in the last decade, save for Sebastian Janikowski, who was a first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2000.
Kickers typically aren’t selected until at least the fifth round. To his credit, Nugent wouldn’t allow himself to feel pressured by the early selection.
“I was really happy to be drafted by the Jets, it was a lot of fun playing there,” Nugent said. “As far as the pressure, I felt like the only pressure I should really experience was the pressure I put on myself.”
After three years in New York, Nugent suffered a torn quadriceps injury in the first game of his fourth season. The Jets brought in veteran kicker Jay Feely, who kept the starting job for the remainder of the year.
“I was in a contract year, and I had to make a decision whether or not I wanted to re-sign with Jets,” Nugent said. “It just got to a point where I thought maybe there were other opportunities out there to play for a different team.”
His first opportunity came as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009. In four games, Nugent made only two of his six attempts.
He was then released by the Bucs.
“It was kind of a shock that he didn’t start out very well,” Kevin Nugent said. “He was hoping that they’d continue on with him, but we got another shock when he was released.”
Although it would have been easy to blame the quadriceps injury from the previous year for his inconsistencies, Nugent refused to do so.
“The injury felt fine,” Nugent said. “I was missing some longer field goals and just wasn’t hitting the ball the way I wanted to.”
He signed on with the Arizona Cardinals in December 2009 as a temporary replacement for Cardinals starter Neil Rackers and was released when Rackers returned two weeks later.
This was the same guy who Buckeye teammates cheered as soon as his foot hit the ball because they assumed every kick was splitting the uprights. Yet here he was, unemployed, watching the games at home.
“That was tough, just sitting on Sundays and watching games,” Nugent said. “You want to be out there, having people watch you instead of you watching them.
“It’s one of those things where you’re watching and keeping an eye out on what’s going on, who’s kicking well and who’s not,” he said. “You never wish for others to miss, but it’s tough to cheer for people when they’re all in the same position you want to be in.”
Kevin agreed that it was a tough time for his brother.
“He’s always worked hard and he’s usually done pretty well, so it was hard,” Kevin said. “You’re kind of just sitting back and hoping for a team to call.”
There are only 32 teams in the NFL, so there aren’t many kicking positions to fill. Still, NFL coaches are notorious for losing faith in their starting kickers.
“I think I was flown to six or seven different places for a workout,” Nugent said.
With the 2010 NFL season fast approaching, the Bengals brought in Nugent to compete with Dave Rayner for the starting job. Nugent won the job in camp and hasn’t looked back.
He’s made 10 out of 11 attempts this season. His only miss of the year was a blocked kick in last Sunday’s contest against the Cleveland Browns.
If Nugent is able to finish this season in a similar fashion to the way he’s started it, he won’t have to worry about waiting for a phone call in the offseason.