Florida State product Dustin Hopkins is happy to have a little extra familiarity when he competes for the Buffalo Bills’ place-kicking job this summer.
Hopkins will be reunited with Bills second-year punter Shawn Powell, who was his holder in college, and with fellow Seminole EJ Manuel, the Bills’ top draft pick. Bills long-snapper Garrison Sanborn is a Florida State graduate, too, although he’s five years older than Hopkins.
“I was blessed enough to have Shawn hold for me for three years and I’m aware of how talented he is, not only in punting but holding, so I’m excited in that aspect,” Hopkins said after being picked by the Bills in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. “And obviously to have EJ, he’s a great friend of mine. We have so many guys up there. Shoot, it’s going to be like, not a college locker room all over again, but it’s going to be good to see friends.”
Hopkins represents a significant challenge to incumbent Bills place-kicker Rian Lindell.
The Bills – and many draft analysts – rated him the top place-kicker in college. In four full seasons as the Seminoles’ kicker he set NCAA records for scoring (466 points) and field goals (88).
Hopkins has a strong leg. He was 5 of 6 on field goals of 50 or more yards as a senior and 9 of 15 for his career. He was excellent from 40 to 49 yards, as well, hitting 12 of 16 from that distance over the past two seasons.
On kickoffs, Hopkins ranked seventh in the nation with 43 touchbacks. He was 45th in the country in touchback percentage, at 41 percent.
Lindell, 36, is the longest tenured player on the Bills’ roster, having joined the team in 2003. He holds numerous team records, including highest career field-goal percentage, at 83.3. He has been as reliable as ever the past season and a half (he missed half of 2011 due to injury). He ranked ninth in field-goal accuracy in 2011 and 14th in 2012, making 87.5 percent.
However, as veteran punter Brian Moorman learned last season, getting into competition with the highest-rated college product at your position can be hazardous to your job security. The Bills waived Moorman three weeks into last season and replaced him with Powell.
Lindell welcomes the competition.
“The new coaching staff made it clear there’s competition for all positions for everybody,” Lindell said. “They don’t have any track record with me, and they want at all positions to create competition, and I’m no different. I’m ready to compete.”
Lindell’s leg strength isn’t what it once was. Former coach Chan Gailey kept kickoff specialist John Potter on the roster the first six weeks of last season. Lindell’s touchback percentage (14.5) was the lowest in the league. (His hang time and placement helped the Bills cover kicks well.)
Gailey passed up three chances last season to kick field goals of 50-plus yards. The last of those situations came in the fourth quarter of a 15-12 loss to St. Louis. Gailey punted instead of trying a 52-yard field goal.
Lindell would have liked to have tried that kick. He got the chance to try only two 50-yard kicks over the past season and a half. He made one.
Hopkins was a standout from the start in Tallahassee, Fla. His first field goal as a freshman was a 52-yarder against Miami.
The highlight of his sophomore season – and arguably his career – was a 55-yarder he made on the final play to give Florida State a 16-13 win over Clemson. It was the longest walk-off field goal in Atlantic Coast Conference history. It was redemption, too, because he had missed from 40 yards the week before in a loss to North Carolina.
“It was a memorable kick, especially given the circumstances,” Hopkins said. “I had missed the week before. Just knowing I’ve got to work through that, I was just blessed to have another opportunity to kick another one. To be able to come through for your team a week after a rough week, it was truly rewarding..”
Powell was the holder that day. Hopkins is glad to have a friend on the special teams unit.
“Just having somebody who knows, not only your work ethic, but your practice schedule, the way you like the ball held and also just off the field having friends and developing that community kind of outside of the locker room as well is going to help tremendously,” he said. “I’m just excited to work with those guys again and also to meet new people who have a real sense of professionalism about them that I don’t know yet.”
Hopkins knows that if he makes the team he would have to adjust to playing in inclement weather.
“Definitely going to be a change,” he said. “I’ve kicked in some cold weather before in some of our games when we’ve traveled but never at home. It’s going to take adjusting to it but at the same time I think when you know how to kick, and you grow up doing it your whole life, you make a couple adjustments and you go with the flow. You don’t worry about things you can’t control like wind or the cold or whatever it may be. I’m confident in what I can do.”