Photo: Luke Strebel
We know the long-standing stereotypes of a kicker. They’re the least athletic players on a football roster. They’re the guys that shop at the same clothing stores as the rest us. They’re not tough enough to be real football players.
But what are we to make of kickers at a service academy?
They’ve been through basic training. Athleticism may not be necessary to survive four years training to become a military officer, but it takes more mettle than fits the image of a kicker.
Air Force senior kicker Luke Strebel defies the reputation at the same time he’s established himself as one of the top kickers in the nation. He’s a Lou Groza Award candidate.
Off the field, his teammates know he’s survived the same basic training the rest of them endured. They’ve also seen him complete the same workouts as his teammates during the off-season drills and spring football.
On the field, the third-year starter is Air Force’s leading career scorer among kickers. With 13 more points, he passes legendary quarterbacks Dee Dowis and Beau Morgan as the Falcons’ all-time leading scorer.
A less athletic person would be sensitive about the soft kicker image, but Strebel knows who he is.
“Honestly, I think you look at all the Division I college kickers you’d find a high percentage of them played other positions in high school,” Strebel said. “I thought I was a pretty good high school athlete. I have a better football IQ than the general perception.”
Strebel’s high school background includes all-state soccer honors on a two-time state championship team at Nashville Father Ryan. He flirted with playing college soccer before he committed to Air Force in football. He’s also played a little rugby and trained in martial arts.
His stature as a Groza candidate also builds confidence among his teammates entering a rivalry game. Army (6-2) and Air Force (4-4) meet in the second leg of the round-robin Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday Falcon Stadium. Air Force can't win the CIC after losing to Navy last month, but there is enough pride to salvage a split of its to CIC contests.
If the game comes down to a late kick, Strebel has proven himself under pressure. The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder booted the game-winning 30-yard field goal as time expired in the Falcons’ win over Nevada. The 45-42 victory came in the middle of the current three-game winning streak.
Perhaps more significantly, Strebel has shown he can come back from failing in a game-winning situation. He missed a field goal against Hawaii a year ago that would have clinched the victory. The scored remained tied, and Air Force lost in overtime. It ended his national-leading streak of 22 field goals in a row and snapped the Falcons’ 15-game home winning streak.
Such a miss often sends a lesser kicker into a slump; it’s similar to a golfer that loses and can’t regain his swing. The kicker might even start missing extra-points.
That hasn’t been Strebel’s identity. He has resolve and resiliency.
He has hit 7-of-9 field goal attempts this year, including a 50-yarder that gave Air Force hope it could pull off an upset at Michigan. He is 35-of-35 on extra-point kicks. In fact, he's perfect on extra-point kicks for his three-year career: 123-of-123.
His field goal numbers as a junior and sophomore year are similar: 22-of-25 in 2016 and 10-of-11 in 2015.
“I’ve contributed to a loss, but you’ve got to remember you’ve contributed to wins,” said Strebel. “I’m blessed to have great holders and snappers throughout my career. As long as you can trust your unit, you can fall back on yourself. Some kickers blame their holder or a snapper. I don’t worry in the back my mind about my unit. I know they’re going to give me a chance to hit the kick.”
Strebel mentioned them by name: Austin Cutting has been his long snapper in 2016 and 2017; Andrew Gikas handled the role in 2015. Brayden Thomas has been his 2017 holder, Steve Brosey was in 2016 and Brett Dunn in 2015.
That’s a guy in the middle of a team – not a guy that doesn’t fit in with his teammates.
"He's a level-headed guy," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. "He's one of those guys that will be out there at practice seeing what he can do to improve."
Strebel also is a legacy recruit. His father Don graduated from Air Force in 1988, but that ultimately wasn't his reason for committing to the Falcons when decided between football at Air Force and soccer at colleges in Tennessee. It had more to do with he learned about Air Force through one of his best friends, John Hagey, who committed to Air Force as a wrestler. Strebel and Hagey have attended the same schools from kindergarten through Father Ryan and now college. Wrestlers don't hang out with guys that are soft.
"Air Force was always on my radar, but my father never pushed it," Strebel said. "He let me make my own decision. But when Air Force recruited one of my best friends, I learned more about Air Force. All of the pieces began to fit together."