If last season was already bad enough, Arkansas junior kicker Zach Hocker suddenly found himself benched during the final game with LSU.
It was the capper to a season that had been looked to with great expectations, but then head coach Bobby Petrino was fired and the year spiraled to a 4-8 campaign from there.
“Last season that wasn’t our team as a whole,” Hocker said. “Tyler Wilson and a lot of the big-name guys on our team just had an off year. I don’t know if that was the adversity of the challenge we faced or just all the problems coming our way going into last season.”
Hocker (6-0, 180) certainly didn’t look as confident as he did as a freshman and sophomore, when he made 37-of-46 field goals and 111-of-112 extra points.
As a junior, the former Russellville standout was 65-of-65 on PATs, but 11-of-18 on field goals – including missing a pair of momentum-swinging field goals early against LSU and being pulled for John Henson.
“All last season, I just wasn’t confident in myself,” Hocker said. “I don’t know if it was the chemistry on the field. I don’t know if it was the adversity that our team faced, but I was timid. I didn’t go out on the field like I did freshman and sophomore year saying ‘I know I am going to make this kick.’
“I honestly can’t pinpoint what it was,” Hocker said. “I might have just started off slow and then made it a mental thing. But this spring game felt more confident than ever and I would like to carry it over into the fall.”
One reason that happened is because new Razorback head coach Bret Bielema came in and asked Hocker to pick out both his holder and his snapper.
“I just feel like this year our team is so much more confident, especially with myself – working with three guys in my unit that I was with all day long, a snapper and holder that I am friends with on and off the field and we have nice chemistry built up,” Hocker said. “I would love to see a much more consistent season, much like my freshman and sophomore season. So if we can get to that point for this next fall, then I will be happy.”
Hocker does admit he was a little taken aback when he learned that defensive line coach Charlie Partridge was going to coach the kickers.
“Coach Partridge is the D-Line/Specialists coach, which is a weird combination and I didn’t know what to think about it,” Hocker said. “But he is from Wisconsin and he actually does a lot of work with (professional kicking coach) Jamie Kohl and those other top guys that work up north with all the specialists.
“He actually knows what he is talking about,” Hocker added. “If you are having a film session with a d-lineman or a kicker, he can break it down and you can say ‘hey, that might be it.”
Hocker was 16-of-19 on field goals as a freshman after being brought to campus as a punter and then winning the kicking job by default.
He believes he has the best coach he has had since arriving at Arkansas.
“A lot of coaches think they know the kicking game,” Hocker said. “They think they know what kickers are doing wrong, but really they have no idea. But it is nice to know that Coach Partridge and Coach Bielema both have some experience out there and actually know what they are talking about.
“It’s nice to be critiqued by a guy that you can look up to and actually know he is going to help you,” Hocker added. “(He) knows it moreso than any other coach that I think I have ever worked with in the past.”
Hocker was listed as both the first-team kicker and punter on the depth chart released on Monday.
Austrailian-born Sam Irwin Hill – a junior college transfer due in this summer – will compete with Hocker for the punting job.
Irwin Hill averaged 45 yards per boot for City College of San Francisco last season while Hocker averaged 45 yards per punt while a senior at Russellville.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Hocker said. “I am the punter now so I would love to compete at that spot. I have talked to a lot of older guys that have done all three and they have loved it. I did it in high school and I know it is a lot more kicking at the collegiate level, but I would love to compete at all three.
“Sam is an awesome kid, an awesome guy and I know Coach (Bielema) did an awesome job recruiting him and if he ends up being the punter, no big deal,” Hocker added. “I wouldn’t have any hard feelings, but I am going to compete at the spot and competition will bring out the best in both of us.”