Penn State football hosted its annual Lasch Bash barbecue on campus last July, providing a relaxed atmosphere for dozens of visiting prospects and their families. That setting drastically contrasted what Jake Pinegar experienced that day a short walk away at Beaver Stadium.
A venue that would host nearly 111,000 people three months later sat empty aside from the Ankeny Centennial (Iowa) kicker, his father and a few Nittany Lions coaches. Coach James Franklin, former Penn State special teams coordinator Charles Huff and current special teams coordinator Phil Galiano wanted to see what the kid was made of.
“There was a lot of pure adrenaline in those moments,” Pinegar said. “Sure, 100,000 fans create more pressure than a few people watching you kick, but there was a scholarship on the line.”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound prospect hadn’t yet spent a full season as his team’s kicker but he caught the eye of Nittany Lions staff members during a June 14 satellite camp hosted by Northern Illinois.
Franklin encouraged him to visit State College so the staff could undergo more extensive evaluation. Pinegar explained that invitation came with a promise.
“We’re going to mess with you,” Franklin said one month before their next meeting.
Pinegar verbally committed to Bowling Green, a Mid-American Conference member, days after the Northern Illinois camp, but soon reopened his recruitment after receiving his first Power 5 scholarship offer from Indiana.
With a Big Ten offer in his back pocket, Pinegar traveled to Happy Valley on July 15 feeling like a guy playing with house money. That outlook quickly evolved.
“I wasn’t really feeling pressure at first because I had other opportunities but once I checked out campus and met everyone, that changed,” he said. “I liked Penn State a lot and really wanted the offer.”
His second audition for the staff would determine the outcome.
Pinegar began with kickoff drills, during which the Penn State staff tested his ability to deliver the ball on a directional basis. Then they moved on to field goals, and Franklin made good on his promise.
The Nittany Lions leader walked in Pinegar’s line of kicking and shouted at random. At times, Franklin threatened to charge forward. He and his assistants took turns blowing whistles near Pinegar’s face.
“It was pretty much creating general chaos,” Pinegar said.
He estimates the coaches watched him kick 30-plus field goals. Pinegar missed only 1.
“I bought into the pressure,” he said.
A follow-up meeting that Sunday in Franklin’s office resulted in an offer. Pinegar pledged to Penn State on July 16.
Pinegar has always been an impressive athlete but didn’t shift focus to kicking until 2016. He was set to start as a junior but rolled an ankle shortly before the season, leaving his older brother, Hunter, to handle kicking duties.
Pinegar still gained experience in the role that fall and also earned all-state honors at defensive back.
“Jake was recruited because he’s a superior athlete,” said Jamie Kohl, a fellow Ankeny resident who trains Pinegar and works with the Centennial staff. “Jake was dunking basketballs in ninth grade and ahead of his age athletically in almost everything he did. Most superior of all was his ability to kick a ball a long way. He was a multi-positional guy who was stretched with offense, defense, track, soccer, but probably began to identify himself as a kicker within the past 18 months.”
He took on full-time kicker duties for the first time in 2017. Kohl, a former four-year starter at Iowa State who has directed Kohl’s Professional Football Kicking Camps since 2000 and saw 53 pupils compete in NFL training camps last August, watched as Pinegar connected on multiple 50-yard attempts and rise to No. 6 nationally among players at the position in 247Sports 2019 composite rankings.
They’ve continued to meet a few times per week this offseason, preparing Pinegar for June enrollment at Penn State. The Nittany Lions lost starting kicker Tyler Davis — now a member of the Buffalo Bills — after the 2017 season and fellow scholarship kicker Alex Barbir departed the program in December.
Carson Landis, a redshirt freshman who joined the program as a walk-on in 2017, was Penn State’s lone primary kicker throughout 2018 spring camp. Franklin addressed the matter immediately after a practice session in which media members saw Landis struggle with accuracy.
“We really don’t have a competition, to be honest with you,” he said. “At kicker, we got Landis. We got one kicker right now. Obviously, I think [all-conference punter Blake] Gillikin can do it, and he did it in high school. We prefer not to do it.”
This leaves the door open for Pinegar, who is the only member of a celebrated 2018 Nittany Lions recruiting class who doesn’t face positional competition from another scholarship athlete.
“I’m excited and anxious to arrive, and doing everything in my power to prepare,” he said. “I’m as antsy [to get to campus] as anyone could be.”
Just because Pinegar’s tuition costs are covered by the university doesn’t mean he’ll have an advantage by simply stepping foot in Penn State football facilities.
Landis converted all 4 extra-point opportunities and a 34-yard field goal in the Blue-White Game. The Nittany Lions will also welcome walk-on kickers Vlad Hilling and Rafael Checa.
“It’s a competition for all of them, and Jake understands that,” Galiano said. “At every position on this team — it’s one of our core values — we compete in everything we do, so kicker doesn’t make a difference, punter doesn’t make a difference, long snapper doesn’t make a difference.
“We’re going to compete and it’s going to be a great opportunity for him and the other guys involved in summer camp and I’m excited. Somebody’s got to win the job and we’ll go from there.”
Pinegar, now only weeks away from his arrival, has sustained communication with Gillikin regarding what to anticipate.
“I’ve seen what he can do and I think physically he has the tools to play right away, but a big part of that — especially at the specialist position — is about whether you can handle it mentally,” Gillikin said.
Kohl has witnessed countless kickers excel and implode. Practice is pivotal, he explained, but everything depends on what happens when the spotlight expands.
“We’ve all seen someone throw out the first pitch at a baseball game,” Kohl said. “They could probably throw it 90 percent of the time right to the catcher but when it’s in front of everyone in the stadium, how often is that a brutal experience?”
Pinegar is unable to comprehend what it will be like to attempt a crucial kick in the final moments of a tight matchup vs. Michigan or Ohio State. Still, he’s doing his best to be ready.
“I can’t simulate anything that comes close to 110,000 fans. That’s going to be a new challenge no matter what,” he said. “Right now, the only thing I can do is to develop a routine where it’s muscle memory so I don’t have to worry about outside factors. I’m developing a strict routine with field goals and kickoffs so it can be automatic.”
Penn State was able to rely on Davis handling those duties last season.
“We lost a great kicker who did both field goals and kickoffs for us, so I think [Pinegar] realizes the opportunity that’s in front of him,” Gillikin said.
Rather than losing sleep about the upcoming challenge, Pinegar is embracing it.
“I know coming in the pressure is going to be on me because I’m the only scholarship kid, but it’s going to be a competitive environment for all of us,” he said. “I thrive in those situations and that’s going to bring the best out of me.”
Pinegar’s sessions with Kohl have helped with the process, and supply some pressure. If he misses 3 field-goal attempts, the practice ends.
“These past few weeks, I’ve been kicking better than anytime in my life,” Pinegar said. “My goal is to carry all that momentum and I know if I’m at my best … it’s over and it’s going to be my position. That’s the plan. My goal is to do both roles — kickoffs and field goals — so I envision a lot of playing time this year.”
Kohl understands his protege carries plenty of confidence, but he cautions against an all-or-nothing approach in 2018.
“If he’s ready from Day 1, great. If he’s not ready from Day 1, that still doesn’t diminish Jake as a recruit,” Kohl said. “The talent is there. Now the question is whether he’s there yet from a performance aspect, and that sometimes takes time.”
The admittedly antsy Pinegar aims to approach his impending enrollment with perspective.
“At the end of the day, as dumb as it sounds, it’s kicking a ball. I’ve done it thousands of times,” he said.