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THE KICKER

With Buehler kickin' it bold style, the boom times are back at USC

November 08, 2008|Gary Klein | Klein is a Times staff writer.

David Buehler remembers the aftermath.

It's the details of what precipitated it that remain foggy, much like the conditions on that chilly November night at the Coliseum two years ago.

Buehler was a backup kicker for USC, third on the depth chart.

But with USC facing fourth and long in the second half against California, coaches summoned Buehler for his first field-goal attempt as a Trojan, a 49-yarder.

"It was deer-in-the-headlights," Buehler recalls. "As I was taking my steps to get ready, I felt this shot of weakness through my legs. Maybe it was adrenaline.

"The next thing I know, the ball was in the air. I don't even remember the kick. It was just muscle memory taking over."

The ball split the uprights, tying the score, 9-9, and starting USC on its way to a 23-9 victory that clinched the Pacific 10 Conference title and a berth in the Rose Bowl.

Two years later, as USC prepares to play Cal tonight in another game with Rose Bowl implications, Buehler is an NFL prospect who is not only an accurate placekicker but also routinely puts kickoffs into and through the end zone.

"A real weapon," Coach Pete Carroll says.

But not the type that anyone, including Buehler, envisioned when USC coaches first laid eyes on him.

Gone is the fullback-style neck roll he wore over his shoulder pads during his first season at USC.

So are the gloves, armbands and other football fashion accessories from his days as a safety and running back.

Buehler has come to terms with it: He is a kicker.

"This is what I want to do," he says.

Buehler, 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds, played linebacker and running back at Anaheim Canyon High. He was a kicker, safety, goal-line running back and a gunner on the punt-coverage unit at Santa Ana College in 2005.

USC coaches saw him clock the fastest 40-yard dash at a junior college scouting combine the following spring and thought they'd found an athlete. "I was totally evaluating him as a defensive player," secondary coach Rocky Seto says. "I don't know that I saw any kicking drills."

Buehler marketed himself to the Trojans staff, showing them online statistics from a kicking-camp competition he won. Carroll offered a scholarship in the summer of 2006 despite the presence of kickers Mario Danelo and Troy Van Blarcom.

"I didn't know where I was going to fit in," Buehler says, "but I couldn't pass up an 'SC scholarship."

Before his first seven-on-seven workout, he went to the practice field early to warm up, not sure what position he would play.

Shirtless and with a shaved head, he tried a few kicks.

"I'm thinking, 'This isn't a kicker. You're kidding me,' " former snapper Will Collins recalls. "I was like, 'Good God, he's bigger than a linebacker!' "

Buehler's progression from Cal-game hero to NFL prospect might not have happened were it not for a series of emotional and tragic circumstances.

Buehler worked out at safety and running back during training camp and spent most of the 2006 season playing on special-teams coverage units while Van Blarcom handled kickoffs and Danelo field goals.

"Being a kicker was kind of secondary for Buehler," former Trojans quarterback Michael McDonald says. "He was a football player and wanted to hit people."

But about a week after USC's season-ending 13-9 loss to UCLA, Van Blarcom was declared academically ineligible for the 2007 Rose Bowl and dismissed from the university. Buehler, who had been friends with Van Blarcom since their youth soccer days, handled kickoffs in the Trojans' 32-18 victory over Michigan.

Then, less than a week after the Rose Bowl, Danelo died after an apparent fall from a cliff in San Pedro.

"It was kind of a hard way to get a job," Buehler says quietly. "Coming in, Mario was open to helping me out. I learned the mental part from him. All I know is from Mario. I'm glad I was able to spend a lot of time with him."

In that 2006 Cal game, Danelo kicked 19- and 32-yard field goals but the Trojans still trailed, 9-6, late in the third quarter.

Facing fourth and 15 at the Golden Bears' 32-yard line, USC turned to Buehler.

High in the Coliseum stands, a few rows from the top of the stadium, Buehler's father, John, sat with several family members.

"I knew it was a situation where they might call on David so I was watching him intently through my binoculars," John says. "Then the fog started rolling in over the lights and I'm thinking, 'I may not even see this.' "

Buehler's mother, Diane, was sitting with other family members in seats behind the goal post at the closed end of the stadium. She broke into tears when she saw her son run onto the field for a kick that would be coming toward her.

"I was ready in other games when we'd have a fourth and four or something; I'd get loose, but it never came," Buehler recalls. "I thought, 'They're never going to use me. They're going to go for it every time.' "

But he came on to nail the longest USC field goal since 1998, rocking the stadium and starting a Trojans rally.

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