The kicking unit of Frank Lenti, Kyle Knezetic and Jason Reda.
Sept. 30, 2007
by Sam Miller, Illinois Sports Information
The Fighting Illini kicking battery, consisting of snapper Kyle Knezetic, holder Frank Lenti Jr. and kicker Jason Reda, all seniors, have been working together for the last four years. During that time, Reda has kicked 41 field goals and 88 extra points and is on this year's preseason Lou Groza Award Watch List. But while Reda gets most of the credit, none of it would be possible without the consistency of Knezetic and Lenti.
Last week, all three sat down and talked with Sports Information's Sam Miller.
Miller: How often have the three of you been together for an interview to discuss the kicking team?
Lenti: You mean, snap, hold, kick?
Miller: Yes, I mean snap, hold, kick.
Knezetic: I don't think we've ever sat down for an interview together. Wait a minute, here's our chance to defend ourselves.
Lenti: Whenever any of us are asked a question about the unit, we always make sure to mention the other two guys. You do it more to protect yourself, so you don't have to look over both shoulders.
Reda: Yeah, that's right.
Knezetic: When I don't see my name, I start to get a little angry. I make sure those two say something.
Lenti: I'm the one who gets in trouble when Jason misses field goals. He blames me.
Reda: No, no, no. I blame both of you. (smiling)
Lenti: It runs down hill. When Jason misses, he yells at me. Then I'll yell at Kyle.
Reda: It's never the kicker's fault! (laughing)
Lenti: Kyle doesn't have anybody (who follows him) to yell at, so he just yells at everybody.
Knezetic: We just give credit where credit's due - all over.
Miller: Whoa, wait a second. Back that tape up! I heard no response to Jason's statement that "It's never the kicker's fault."
Reda: That's right. They know better. (smiling)
Knezetic: Well, we know the truth. Frank and I know that we're not the ones kicking the ball.
Lenti: We're used to just taking the blame.
Reda: I've gotten a lot better about that!
Lenti: Like he said, he knows when it's his fault. Kyle and I never mess up.
Reda: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Frank knows when he messes up.
The banter continued for a while, just like it has for the last three years while Knezetic, Lenti and Reda have sat side-by-side at their lockers.
Do they ever get tired of one another? Of course they do.
When Reda and Knezetic first met as seniors in high school at a kicking camp, they barely spoke to each other until they realized they would be stuck together as teammates for four years at Illinois.
"We all have different personalities, so we have a nice little clash every now and then," Lenti said.
While roommates Knezetic and Reda can't so easily avoid each other, Lenti occasionally retreats to his own residence to escape the discord. "Here's how it works," Lenti explains. "I know Kyle has to go home to Jason. I'll get Kyle all fired up so Jason has to deal with him for the rest of the night. Jason will just look at me and say, 'Oh, you had to get him all fired up again.'"
"It doesn't take much to get me fired up, and Frank pushes my buttons often," Knezetic said.
Despite their good-natured teasing, life is not always full of laughs for the trio who likens itself to the Barone family on TV's "Everybody Loves Raymond."
They are, after all, a unit. When something goes wrong, all three members feel the sting, just as they felt nearly three years ago in the final game of their first season together in 2004. With five seconds remaining in regulation and the score tied against Northwestern, the kick was up, and it was...no good. The Wildcats went on to win in overtime.
Now three years later, that game seems like a distant memory. The kick went by in the blink of an eye, in about 1.2 seconds to be more precise.
"You can't dwell on it - all the little stuff - a miss in the game, you just can't let it get to you," Reda said. "If you do, you're going to have trouble making your next kick. You have to have a very short-term memory when it comes to something like that."
Sure, each player remembers their missed kicks all too well, but they also realize that they have weathered those kicks and others to become three of the Orange and Blue's most dependable players.
In fact, two of the trio's memorable kicking adventures came in some of the worst of situations.
Even though football practice can simulate a lot of scenarios, there is simply no way to re-create bad weather like what the unit experienced in October 2005 at Iowa. The ball would not go in a straight line for anything, due to wind gusts. It was a long day that still makes them cringe.
A week later, the kicking team encountered other complications against Indiana. Knezetic took a hard hit during an Illini punt and suffered a severely bruised collarbone but refused to stop playing.
Later in the game as the three walked onto gridiron to line up from beyond midfield, Knezetic confided that his shoulder was killing him. He had no idea how the snap would go. Lenti recalls it was a little tough to get the snap down, but he got it, and Reda got all of it from 52 yards for the longest field goal of his career. That kick, they say, is what sums up the trust and consistency in their unit.
First-year Illinois special teams coordinator Mike Woodford appreciated knowing he had stability in the kicking unit when he arrived.
"As a coach, knowing that they're going to be there is big," Woodford said. "They're very close, they work well together, they have fun. It's pretty special."
To a degree, Knezetic, Lenti and Reda shrug off the importance of having a good personal relationship as a kicking unit, but each acknowledges that has made the last four years more significant for them.
"These guys have become like brothers to me," Lenti said.
When Reda connected on a 39-yard game-winning field goal last September at Michigan State, the three celebrated not only the end of Illinois' 10-game conference losing streak, but also their proudest moment as brothers in arms.
"That just showed everything about us," Knezetic said. "The snap, the hold the kick, everything was perfect."
Up to this point, the trio has not thought much about what happens after the final snap, hold, kick this season. Their only goal is perfection.
"I think our goal is to be 100 percent on everything we do," Lenti said.
Woodford agreed, along with adding in a little fun to the equation.
"I just want them to be able to say that they gave it their best shot and they had fun doing it," Woodford said.
Sounds good to Knezetic, Lenti and Reda. After all, kicking isn't rocket science.
"It's at the point where I don't even take snaps from Kyle before we go out and kick a field goal, knock on wood," Lenti said. "We've done it so many times, it's just like tying your shoe."
But having Reda's rocket foot, and Knezetic and Lenti at mission control, doesn't hurt either.