James Stefanou watched the ball sail through the uprights and then raised his arms in celebration, oblivious to the fact that his holder, Alex Kinney, has just been taken out by an Arizona State defender.
“I didn’t see Kinney go down,” Stefanou said. “He’s on the ground and I didn’t even help him up.”
Stefanou can be forgiven because Kinney didn’t get hit that hard. Yeah, he drew a unique “roughing the holder” penalty, but Stefanou joked, “Kinney did well there. He did really well. I was gonna give him an Oscar after that one.”
Stefanou can also be forgiven because, aside from one blocked extra point against Air Force, every other kick he’s had this year has been on the mark and prompted the kicker and holder to celebrate their success.
Four games in the season, Stefanou is enjoying a bounce-back season for the Buffaloes (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12), who are off this week.
A junior, Stefanou is 6-for-6 on field goals and 17-for-18 on extra points and he leads the team with 35 points scored. That final kick against ASU, with 34 seconds remaining didn’t count because of the penalty, but his 44-yard field goal with 2:03 to play proved to be the game winner in a 34-31 victory. He also hit a game-winning 34-yarder in overtime to beat Nebraska in Week 2.
“It’s great; it’s fantastic,” he said of the two game-winners – the first of his career. “I think if you’re kicking and you don’t love the pressure, there’s something wrong. So it’s good to get out there and after last year missing those couple at Nebraska, which we’ve talked about enough, it’s been good to sort of get that monkey off the back and knock them through.”
Last year was almost a lost season for Stefanou, an Australian native who came to CU in 2017 after a decade in professional soccer. He was sensational in 2017, earning freshman All-American honors from ESPN and being named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award.
Good health eluded him last year, though, and he fought through pain and a 5-for-8 start (including the two misses at Nebraska) before being shut down for a few weeks.
This year, he’s healthy and it has been evident in his performance.
“It’s hard to understand how difficult it was last year, kicking through pain,” he said. “You can’t kick the ball as smoothly as you want to kick it, you have to kick through the pain all the time.
“You know, the other thing that really has helped (this year) is these coaches – the belief in me. Not that the last coaches didn’t, but these new coaches come in, they believe in me and, you know they believe in this whole team and it just filters through to everyone.”
Leg strength and mechanics are on point, too, and that’s allowed Stefanou to be more efficient in practice.
“I don’t kick as much, I’ll tell you that much,” he said. “I don’t warm up as much. I don’t stay after practice and keep kicking. You can get into a false sense of belief that working harder is always working more and kicking more and not stopping. Sometimes it’s harder to actually stop and say, ‘No this is the better thing for me right now. Everything was good, reps were good, ups were good. Let’s call it a day.’”
Stefanou’s days are a little busier this year, though, as he has added kickoff duties. During his first two years, Davis Price was the kickoff specialist. Stefanou took over those duties during the opener against Colorado State, however, and he’s been nearly flawless.
Of his 21 kickoffs, only two have been returned (both against ASU).
“I love kicking off, man,” he said. “It gets you in the game. It’s fun, too, running down there with the boys (on the kickoff team).”
Given CU’s success on offense – the Buffs are averaging 35.8 points per game – there have been a lot of field goal, extra point and kickoff opportunities, and so far, Stefanou has made the most of them.
CU is scheduled to take the weekend off from practice and return to the field on Monday to prepare for Arizona. … The Buffs will host Arizona on Oct. 5 at Folsom Field (2:30 p.m.; TV: Pac-12 Networks). … Stefanou has made eight of his last nine field goal attempts, dating back to last year. … For his career, Stefanou has scored 167 points, which ranks sixth in CU history among kickers, just one point behind Aric Goodman.