K Xavier Beitia made his first 20 field goals of training camp...but don't call it a streak
About 40 minutes into a 60-minute practice on Monday afternoon, working off a schedule only he possessed, Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia called kicker Xavier Beitia onto the field.
From across the field, Bisaccia told Beitia and the holder and snapper, the only three players between the lines, that they had 15 seconds to get in, get set and get the kick off. The coach then sent a phalanx of Tampa Bay Buccaneer players running in from his sideline, yelling and waving their arms at Beitia. The kicker calmly lined up, waited for the snap and popped a perfect kick into the air: high, end-over-end and dead center between the uprights.
As Beitia left the field, successful, Bisaccia sent one more thing after him: A reminder. "You don't get second chances," yelled the coach. "This is your only chance."
You see, that kick was, in fact, a second chance for the first-year kicker from Florida State. Minutes earlier, Bisaccia had called for the same piece of execution and the group of three had rushed it. Beitia had approached the ball fast and kicked it very hard, sending a screamer hooking a few yards to the right of the upright. Rather than moving on down the script, Bisaccia had chosen to run the drill one more time, only with the pressure dialed up another notch.
Bisaccia's message was a good one, but not one that Beitia has needed much during the first 11 days of training camp. Earlier on Monday, during the morning practice, Beitia had missed a 48-yarder during the field goal session, notable because it was the first three-point try he had missed during the entire camp. In a camp in which coaches chart every throw, every catch, every run and every kick, you can bet that Beitia's streak hadn't gone unnoticed.
To the young kicker trying to make it with his hometown team, however, "streak" isn't the appropriate word for his 20 straight successful kicks, which extended into his first two kicks on Monday morning.
"It's good any time you can get in a zone and kick well," said Beitia, who was born and raised in Tampa, playing his high school ball at Jesuit. "To me, it was 20 kicks one at a time. For everybody else it was 20 kicks in a row; for me, it was just 20 kicks, one at a time. That's the way I kept approaching it and that's the way I approach every kick. So in my mind it wasn't a streak. I was just hitting the ball well and I have to keep doing that."
Indeed, Beitia faces the same uphill odds that confront any young kicker trying to edge his way into the exclusive NFL fraternity at his position. The number of jobs in the league doesn't change from year to year, and many of the kickers who land those jobs remain effective for a long stretch of years. Young kickers are almost always battling against trusted incumbents, and that's the case for Beitia, who is trying to unseat Matt Bryant, who made 21 of 25 field goals for the Buccaneers last year. The Bucs didn't bring in Beitia because of any dissatisfaction with Bryant but instead to give their returner kicker some competition and maybe uncover a hidden talent.
"It's a credit to him," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of Beitia's strong camp. "He's come in here and made field goals. That's an area that we've really worked hard at improving. We struggled, obviously, a couple of years ago. Bryant has upgraded us and we've tried to add competition for him, too, because he proved he thrived under that last year with Todd France."
But can Beitia actually beat out Bryant? Is it more likely that he's auditioning for every team in the league with this preseason work?
The young kicker isn't wasting any time contemplating those questions. He's simply trying to prove that he can be one of those trusted incumbents someday.
"I've said it a thousand times before – any kicker at this level inside 50 yards can make a field goal," said Beitia for the 1,001st time. "What separates us is which ones can do it every time, which ones can do it more consistently. It's definitely tough but I think as long as you keep doing well, over time you can separate yourself. It takes about three or four years on average."
Beitia may have sped up the process by going overseas to play in the NFL Europe League as a Buccaneer allocate this spring. After shining in an NFLEL kickers camp in Tampa, Beitia was awarded with the job for the Berlin Thunder. He went on to make nine of 13 field goals for the Thunder, including all four in the 40 to 49-yard range, and all 21 of his extra point tries.
That live action sent Beitia into Bucs camp with an extra layer of confidence.
"It helped me a lot," he said. "Being in a game atmosphere helped. Here, right now, I've already played 10 games this year so I'm used to everything pretty much. That's what Europe did for me mentally.
Beitia will suit up for his 11th game on Friday, when the Bucs open their preseason slate against the New York Jets. He'll play in Raymond James Stadium, just a short jog down the road from his old field at Jesuit. How many opportunities he gets on this first weekend will depend on game situations and coaches' decisions, but he knows any kick under the lights is worth all 20 of those he made to start camp.
"It's super-important," said Beitia of performing well in the games. "You can go 50-for-50 in practice and if you go oh-for-two in the game it doesn't matter. The game is where you win or lose, not on the practice field. But at the same time, as a player, if you kick well in practice it gives you confidence to kick well in the game. That's my goal right now."
There are three more preseason games after Friday's opener, and two sets of roster cuts mixed in before the regular season. If Beitia's prediction is accurate, he may have to toil at his craft for a few years before landing a long-term job. Then again, maybe he'll be making pressure kicks this fall. Either scenario is much, much farther down the road than the young kicker is thinking about right now.
"As far as I'm concerned, I don't look that far ahead," he said. "I don't know who we play in the second preseason game yet. It's just one day at a time. Right now, this is the opportunity that's been given to me and it's the one I'm trying to make the best out of. You never know what could happen. We could sit here all day and talk about the what-ifs, but right now I'm on this team until they cut me. That's just the way I approach it every day."