December 29, 2017 9:37:40 AM
Brett Hudson - [email protected]
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In a fall filled with fanfare and unexpected experiences, the one that stands out for Jace Christmann's family is the sporting goods store.
Placekicking woes had plagued a majority of the Dan Mullen era at Mississippi State football, and the first two games of the 2017 season showed no signs of changing. Then Christmann was given a shot at the full-time job and did not disappoint, making all three of his field goal attempts in a blowout win over LSU.
The Christmann family remembers getting alerts from friends seeing a promotion at a Starkville sporting goods store the next day: the 3-for-3 for $47 special, when shoppers could get two polo shirts and a sticker for a price equivalent to Christmann's jersey number.
That was just the beginning.
Christmann did not own MSU's starting placekicker job at the beginning of the season, but with one game left he is the Southeastern Conference's second-best field goal kicker after converting on 91.7 percent of his field goal attempts and making all 38 of his extra-point attempts. His breakout freshman season ends in the TaxSlayer Bowl when No. 24 MSU (8-4) takes on Louisville (8-4) 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPN) at EverBank Field.
It's been a season that caught a lot of people off-guard.
"Caught me, I will admit. He has been phenomenal," MSU interim coach Greg Knox said, who is also the team's special teams coordinator. "You talk about a turnaround, a guy that really struggled last year, came to fall camp and has been a totally different guy."
Knox also noticed confidence as a big part of Christmann's breakout season -- the same confidence Christmann says he's always had.
"I knew I was capable of it; I don't know if I necessarily saw it coming or not," Christmann said. "I've always been confident in myself and my abilities. After the first kick, from there it just kind of built. From there, I've been there multiple times, I know what my teammates can do and it's just confidence from there."
That confidence has many roots, some of them going back as far as high school.
When Christmann was a sophomore in high school, his family moved from Midland, Texas, back to Houston, where the family lived before moving to Midland. Despite moving midyear, Christmann made his new school's varsity soccer team and served as the football team's kicker the next fall.
It was after that fall when Christmann got his first confidence boost. He was working with a kicking coach at the time that told him he could play soccer that spring, work over the summer and be ready for the fall of his senior year, but that kicking coach also told Christmann he had the potential to go Division I as a kicker if he dedicated himself to it.
When he heard that, he went to his parents, John and Heather, and told them he was giving up soccer. It wasn't the easiest of conversations: John Christmann told The Dispatch he remembers well the days of driving Jace all around Texas and elsewhere as part of youth club teams. John also understood the significant differences in how kickers handle their upper bodies in the motions of kicking soccer balls and footballs, thus knew that dedicating to one discipline might be the best path for him.
That decision -- on top of a family connection to Billy Gonzales, MSU's wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator at the time Christmann enrolled -- got Jace to MSU. He may have ended the 2016 season as a redshirt, but he didn't get there without some turbulence.
There were times last year that John Christmann had every reason to believe MSU could pull the redshirt off his son and throw him into the game; he even attended the final four games of the season, just to be sure. John Christmann said Dan Mullen called him at one point before last year's Egg Bowl just to be sure the family would be OK with Jace playing if Mullen deemed it necessary to use him.
Obviously, that moment never came and Jace Christmann's redshirt year finished in tact. All told, all parties involved think that was the best possible outcome.
"I had to get ready and mentally prepare myself; fortunately, I didn't have to go in and I'm glad I didn't, because who knows what would've happened? Maybe I miss a kick because I'm panicking," Jace Christmann said. I'm glad I didn't kick last year because I got the mental side, now I had to do the physical side.
"I had been there before. When you're told you're going in against (Louisiana) Tech and LSU, it's nothing new."
Looking back on it, that extra prep gave Jace Christmann a second source of confidence -- even if that result didn't manifest itself immediately.
The spring following Christmann's redshirt season was not his best; it culminated with a close miss in the spring game that sent him to the bottom of the depth chart. John Christmann told The Dispatch Jace still attacked the preseason with the confidence of an established starter, boosted by a technique change over the offseason. Christmann used to have a two-and-a-half step approach to the ball, meaning he would take a quick jab step before the two steps to establish kicking position.
He eliminated the jab step over the summer and became, "a completely different kicker," as his father put it. The results become obvious once he was given the chance.
Since then, Jace Christmann has become an even better kicker than the one that took over the starting job. He (finally) learned how to deal with a miss after his lone miss of the season at Arkansas. He also credits special teams quality control coach Chris Boniol, a former NFL kicker, for his continued development throughout the season, particularly in his mental approach.
With Boniol expected to be retained by new MSU head coach Joe Moorhead and three more years of eligibility for Jace Christmann, it looks like MSU's decade-long placekicking woes are about to end. The Christmann family is more than happy to come along for the ride, as John did at every game this season.
"It's kind of fun just being a parent and sitting in the parents' section," John Christmann said. "It's been very fun and very rewarding to watch him go and perform the way he was performing."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson