Jordan Stout knelt just beyond the 50-yard line with nothing in front of him but a long snapper, open grass and a set of uprights. No lineman twice his size bearing down on him, no wind, no fans watching.
With his thumb and index finger nearly pinched together, Stout made a small indent in the ground. The mark was minuscule, but the details of holding, the rookie has learned, have to be perfect: Catch the ball. Spin it, laces aimed outward. Put the point of the ball exactly on the pinch-sized mark and hold it with your right index finger.
Over the past decade in Baltimore, giving the NFL’s best kicker the best possible ball to kick was never as easy as the Ravens made it look. It took hours in practice of doing the same thing over and over and over again. Before Tucker could be accurate, holder Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox, and later Nick Moore, had to be precise.
So as Stout practiced at mandatory minicamp, the fourth-round pick from Penn State wore a GoPro on his helmet. The camera would show exactly what he saw, revealing the minute margin of error between a make and a miss.
“Hey, man, they’re all about millimeters and inches and all that stuff,” coach John Harbaugh said. “You want everything to be perfect.”
Stout caught Moore’s snap at the 50 and placed the ball on his mark. Tucker started his windup, taking one step before planting his left foot and swinging his powerful right leg. Tucker always has to end on a make.
The kick missed right. They’d have to keep going.
A new role
Every kicker wants the ball held in their own way. Those small differences matter. And for the first 10 years of his career, Tucker knew to trust his holder. The most accurate kicker in NFL history almost always had Koch, whom former Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg considered the game’s greatest holder.
That changed when Koch retired this offseason after 16 years. Stout, though, didn’t know he’d been drafted as Koch’s replacement. Stout had gotten a sense the Ravens were going to pick him in the fourth round. But he also knew Koch was still on the roster.
“I had no idea Sam was going to retire,” Stout said. “They told me probably five or six days before he retired that it was going to happen.”
On the day of the draft, general manager Eric DeCosta and Harbaugh called Koch to tell him they were considering taking a punter. That’s when he knew his time as the longest-tenured player in Ravens history might be coming to an end.
“Me and my wife had had many talks, but I appreciate them giving me that call,” Koch said. “I remember saying to them, I was like, ‘Look, this is a business decision, and this is your business. You guys have to do what you think is best for the Ravens.’”
“Sam couldn’t have been better about it,” Tucker said. “He understood. He’s content.”
Tucker and Stout quickly began working together, attempting to replicate what Tucker and Koch had built over their decade-long partnership. The Ravens enlisted Koch’s help, too, hiring him as a special teams consultant.
“We’ve already worked on some punting and holding aspects of his game,” Koch said at the news conference May 20 announcing his retirement. “So, I’m just going to try to teach him everything I have and put everything I have into making him the best punter this league has seen.”
That veteran experience is invaluable for the rookie.
“He was in the league for 16 years; I’ve barely been alive that long,” Stout, 23, said of Koch. “Each day I think I have it all figured out, and then he comes out with one or two new things I had no idea that I should even think about. Over the past month and a half, my consistency has gone through the roof.”
Even though Stout didn’t hold in a game until he was in college, he always practiced. His coaches told him from a young age in Virginia to make himself valuable by knowing how to punt, handle field goals and kickoffs and hold. Stout served as a holder for only one season at Penn State, in 2020, before giving up the job last season to take on more kicking roles. Now a holder again, Stout said he feels like he’s picking up where he left off.
‘Get behind the eyes’
Each kicker is different, and Tucker is a nerd for the details. It starts with the snap.
Tucker said that in his nine years with Cox, and now his second with Moore, he’s enjoyed consistent snaps, making it easy for the holder to spin the laces toward the goal post. If the kick needs to go left, the laces will face slightly left, and the opposite for a kick heading right.
“The ball can essentially kick itself at that point,” Tucker said. “I’ve joked before: I’m a system kicker. In a sense, it is true. When the different facets of the system all work exactly how they’re supposed to, it does make my job so much easier.”
Yet there’s pressure in holding the ball for someone as accomplished as Tucker, a five-time All-Pro. If Stout makes just one mistake, Tucker could do everything right and still miss his kick.
“That’s what I thought about it first: ‘This is going to be stressful. Holding Justin Tucker, I need to be perfect,’” Stout said. “But then you look at it as an opportunity. I’m about to hold for Justin Tucker. I’m going to be great, and then that’s going to make Justin better, and then I’m going to go down in history as the best holder. So it’s pretty cool.”
Part of the challenge of holding, Stout said, is spinning the laces. That’s where the GoPros come in.
The cameras weren’t initially for studying film. A few years ago, Tucker said he wore one on his helmet because he thought it looked cool. He’d get to see himself kicking the ball just as he did in practice, and that was entertaining. But he quickly realized what an important teaching tool it could be.
“We determined that every once in a while, we need to put the GoPro on to get behind the eyes, get the point of view from the kicker and punter or the holder or even the snapper,” Tucker said. “Sometimes we’ll put the GoPro on the snapper’s head, and it’s all a bunch of upside-down video, which can just really just more than anything just make you dizzy. But it started off as, like, entertainment value, and then we decided that, ‘Hey, we can we can really see what Jordan is seeing.’”
The Ravens record every kick and punt they take, but the video is normally taken from a distance, captured by cameras on poles high above the practice fields at their Owings Mills facility. If Tucker and Koch ever disagreed about the spot of the ball, they’d have no way of knowing who was right.
With Stout’s GoPro, now the Ravens do.
“One would think with Sam, it was this thing that just clicked and then it was ingrained in us, and in a sense that’s true, but it’s something that we had to work at every single day,” Tucker said. “Jordan is essentially trying to catch up on 16 years’ worth of hard work and continuity and the comfort of being out on the field and holding the ball.”
End with a make
Stout and Tucker lined up again. Stout knelt on the 50, needing that one final kick from Tucker to sail between the goal posts.
As he had before, Stout marked the spot and held his arm in the air while Tucker lined up. Three steps back, two to the left and a quick stab of his right foot into the turf. Stout looked up at Tucker to catch his gaze, waiting to see in the kicker’s eyes that he was ready.
This was the seventh attempt from 60 yards during the final minicamp practice, and Tucker was frustrated. He expected to make these kicks. His 66-yarder to defeat the Detroit Lions last season was an NFL record.
On this hot May day, Tucker had made two of his first four attempts, but had just missed two in a row. So he lined up one more time.
Stout caught the snap and spun the laces forward. Tucker took a step forward before planting his left foot and driving the ball.
The kick had plenty of distance, and this time it was good. Tucker seemed relieved. He and Stout had been in sync on that one. Their GoPro footage wouldn’t tell them any differently.