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September 5, 2013Ten minutes after Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien had started answering questions last Saturday - mostly about the performance of his true freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenberg - a reporter finally asked about the afternoon's contribution of placekicker Sam Ficken.
It was the last question of O'Brien's brief post-game press conference, but elicited what appeared to be the last bit of enthusiasm from the energy-drained head coach.
Said O'Brien, "I just said in the locker room - everybody went crazy - 'Congratulations to Sam Ficken.'
Ficken, the much-maligned field goal specialist for the Nittany Lions early in the 2012 season, had just nailed all three of his attempts, including a career-long 46-yarder in the fourth quarter. He also booted four of six kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
With some strong evidence of Ficken's turnaround since his five-miss afternoon in Charlottesville - hitting 13 consecutive field goals dating back to the 2012 season to tie the school consecutive makes record - O'Brien had the ammunition to take some verbal shots at Ficken's detractors.
"Especially to all those tweeters after the Virginia game last year, I'd say, he's done a helluva job," O'Brien said. "He deserves it. He's worked extremely hard. It's only the one game, but he should be very proud of the way he kicked the ball today for Penn State."
O'Brien's words were a public vindication for the 20-year old Indiana native.
Long ago having shrugged off the negative backlash against his performance, Ficken still relished the public support and confidence of his head coach.
"That's awesome to see," Ficken said. "After that game, obviously there was a lot of negativity on Twitter and social media and whatnot. I can't really pay attention to that, but it does feel good to know that your head coach is always looking out for you."
Of course, for as many strides as Ficken has made since being thrust into the starting placekicking role following the abrupt departure of Anthony Fera, that's not to say that O'Brien still doesn't expect constant improvement.
In fact, at practice each day, after stretch and before individual drills, O'Brien holds live kicking sessions for two-point conversions, extra points and field goals.
Typically taking three or four attempts, Ficken said he tries to make the experience as game-like as possible.
"Obviously I want to make every kick I take. There is some pressure there. It's not identical to a game situation, but it's good that Coach O'Brien gets me out there with some pressure on the line in practice," he said.
Though O'Brien characterized Ficken on Tuesday as a confident, fun, smart guy, especially improved through the summer months due to extensive work with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald and long-distance film study with Chicago Bears All-Pro and Penn State alum Robbie Gould, the stakes are still high - even in practice.
"If I miss, I get yelled at," Ficken said. "There's no real penalty for it. I think he understands that I hold myself to a high standard, so he knows that I want to make every kick. I get a little mad at myself if I don't make it. There's no direct penalty. I think he kind of leaves that up to me."
With an opportunity to come full circle Saturday, nearly a full year since that fateful day in Virginia, both Ficken and coach learned from the experience and, ultimately, wouldn't have it any other way.
"The Virginia game, I could have done a better job of putting him in better situations, maybe going for it in a couple of those fourth downs, but I put him out there and at the end of the day it was maybe one of the best things that happened to him. He went through that, took the criticism to heart," O'Brien said. "Obviously, that hurts when people that are anonymous go on ?this is why I hate Twitter.
"But anyway, I think he came through that with flying colors and he ended up absolutely helping us win games at the end of the year and now he's picked up where he left off and hopefully he can continue to do it. It's a fine line. He's working extremely hard to do it, and we will be with him every step of the way."
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