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Jaeger Nervously Walks On to Become Huskies' Starter : Washington Kicker Didn't Get the Boot

December 27, 1985|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | Times Staff Writer

When Jeff Jaeger first walked on to the University of Washington campus to try out for the football team in 1983, his only aspiration was to make the Huskies' junior varsity.

Not to be the starting punter or placekicker. Just to make the team.

Three years, 63 varsity field goals and 76 extra points later, Jaeger, a junior, is 17 field goals away from breaking the NCAA record of 79, set by UCLA's John Lee this season.

Jaeger, who tied Lee for the highest field-goal percentage (87.5%) in the nation by making 21 of 24 attempts, was a second-team, All-America selection by Football News.

He kicked a school-record five field goals in a 29-12 victory over Houston this season and four field goals in a 19-13 victory over Oregon. He'll be kicking against Colorado in Monday night's Freedom Bowl at Anaheim Stadium.

Not bad for a guy who didn't receive one scholarship offer out of high school, who almost had to beg the Washington coaches for a tryout and who said he was so awed during the first day of practice as a freshman that he nearly fainted.

That was the Jeff Jaeger who always underestimated himself.

"I was consistently hitting 45-yarders the summer before my freshman year, but I figured the guys at Washington were booming them 60 yards," Jaeger said. "I didn't think I could be compared to them."

Even after winning the kicking job as a freshman, Jaeger figured that if he missed two straight field goals, he'd be gone. He didn't get off to a very good start, missing a 37-yard attempt in his first game against Northwestern.

"I didn't sleep the night before, and I didn't hit that one well," Jaeger said. "I went out for the next one figuring that if I missed it, it's over. But I made it (a 33-yarder) and we won that game."

Jaeger stuck around as a freshman and was 20 of 26 on field goals and 27 of 28 on PATs. He made 22 of 28 field-goal attempts and 30 of 33 PAT tries as a sophomore and hasn't missed an extra point in 19 tries this year.

His career total of 265 points is second on the Huskies' career scoring list, 6 short of former kicker Chuck Nelson's 271. Jaeger should break that record next year.

"I'm a lot more confident now," said Jaeger, who earned a three-year scholarship, beginning his sophomore year. "I feel I could miss a few and not worry about it."

He hasn't missed many in college, but high school was a different story.

Jaeger made just three of six field-goal attempts during his senior year at Kent-Meridian High in Kent, Wash. But he did make all seven of his extra-point tries.

Get the picture? Kent-Meridian wasn't very good.

Jaeger's team went 1-8 and scored seven touchdowns in 1982. Jaeger, also a tight end and defensive end, scored three of the touchdowns, but there were no college scouts to take notice.

After graduation in 1983, Jaeger contacted then-Washington assistant Ray Dorr (now the head coach at Southern Illinois) to inquire about walking on. Dorr said he'd talk to the other coaches about it, but when Jaeger called back a few weeks later, he didn't get a definitive response.

Come August, Jaeger said he called Dorr every other day until the coach finally said he would give him a tryout.

Thane Cleland, currently the team's No. 1 punter, was supposed to be the placekicker and punter in 1983, but he was having trouble doing both. Jaeger performed well during preseason scrimmages and won the kicking job.

He has since extended Washington's line of excellent kickers, which includes Mike Lansford, now with the Rams, and Nelson, who played for the Rams in 1983 but lost his job to Lansford in 1984.

Washington Coach Don James thinks Jaeger is as good as any kicker in the country, but the junior was only an honorable mention selection in the Pacific 10. That's because UCLA, with Lee, and Arizona, with Max Zendejas, had two of the nation's best.

Lee was everyone's first-team All-America kicker, including AP, UPI, Football News and Kodak. Jaeger was named to Football News' second team and to UPI's honorable mention team.

"I think Lee deserved all of the first-team honors, but I hoped I'd get more seconds and thirds," Jaeger said. "Lee is a big motivator for me. I'd like to get the record (of 79 career field goals) because that would be beating someone."

One reason Jaeger hasn't received the national reputation Lee has may be that Jaeger hasn't won games in the final seconds. About the closest he has come was this season's Oregon game, when his field goal broke a 13-13 tie with three minutes left, and he added another with a minute left for a 19-13 victory.

"That's kind of getting on my nerves," Jaeger said. "I wish I could get just one. I've been waiting, but it still hasn't happened."

That doesn't detract from the season Jaeger has had, but he would gladly trade a few field goals and some of his personal success for a trip to the Rose Bowl. The Huskies, ranked No. 1 in Sports Illustrated's preseason poll, suffered through a disappointing 6-5 season.

They beat UCLA and USC, but lost to Oregon State and Washington State by 21-20 scores, and finished in a two-way tie for fourth place in the Pac-10. Last season, Washington went 11-1 and beat Oklahoma, 28-17, in the Orange Bowl.

The Freedom Bowl may not be as prestigious as the Rose Bowl or Orange Bowl, but Jaeger plans to enjoy his stay.

"I'm looking at it as more of a vacation," he said. "Last year, I was nervous, and everyone was a bit edgy because it was such a big game. This year, everyone is out to have a good time and enjoy it.

"It's kind of tough reading about the Rose Bowl up the road. I've never been there, and I'll have one more shot--that's it. But it's kind of nice being here."

Jaeger hopes that with another good season he'll have a shot at kicking in the NFL. But what if he isn't drafted?

"I don't know, I may have to beg," he said.

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