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Lawrence's leg gives Texas a lift

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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Seconds before Hunter Lawrence propelled Texas into the BCS title game with one, swift thrust of the leg, the kicker watched his teammates shove an uninvited guest out of the Longhorns' huddle.

"Don't be scared," Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh yelled toward Lawrence in last month's Big 12 Championship. "Don't be scared."

Suh laughed when recalling the encounter a few weeks later.

"I was trying to rattle him," Suh said, "but it didn't work."

That, more than anything, is what has made Lawrence one of the most successful kickers in Texas history. His mechanics are textbook, his right leg powerful. But what separates Lawrence is that he doesn't get the yips.

Or at least he hasn't yet.

Nearly a month after his 46-yard field goal as time expired gave Texas a 13-12 victory over Nebraska, Lawrence is confident his accuracy will continue when the Longhorns face Alabama for the national title Thursday in Pasadena.

"Whatever the situation, I'll be ready," Lawrence said. "It'd be nice if we could score a bunch of touchdowns, where all I had to do was kick extra points. That'd mean things were going pretty well for us."

That scenario doesn't seem likely.

With both teams featuring standout defenses, there's a strong chance the Longhorns-Crimson Tide clash could be a low-scoring affair. If that's the case then Lawrence and Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin could play a major role in the outcome.

Tiffin earned first-team All-American honors this season, but Lawrence (a third-team selection) is the guy who made one of the bigger "high-stakes" kicks that college football has seen the last few seasons.

Think about it: If Lawrence hadn't kicked the ball through the uprights on the game's final play against Nebraska, Texas wouldn't be playing for the national title. Instead Cincinnati would be facing the Crimson Tide. And we all saw how the Bearcats performed against Florida in the Sugar Bowl on Friday.

Yeesh.

"When he made it, we realized it was a big kick in terms of that one game," said Sid Lawrence, Hunter's father. "But we never realized people would be talking about it in the kind of terms they are now. It's really been amazing."

Most of the hero worship at Texas is usually reserved for quarterback Colt McCoy or receiver Jordan Shipley. But things began to change following the Nebraska game.

A few days after the victory, when Lawrence drove past the University Co-op bookstore on the campus' main drag, he saw a massive banner with his picture on it hanging outside. Strangers approached him on his way to class to ask for an autograph and people he went to elementary school with – kids he hadn't heard from in more than 10 years – began phoning his parents' home and asking for ways to get in touch with him.

"My wife and I heard from the best man in our wedding after not talking to him for about six years," said Sid Lawrence, who spent one season as a linebacker at SMU before transferring to Texas and giving up football. "It's amazing how one kick can bring so many people together, how it can have such an impact."

A senior, Lawrence had been preparing for such a moment for years. It all started around the sixth grade, when he told his father he wanted to enter a Punt, Pass and Kick contest. Lawrence had been excelling in soccer, so when Sid began teaching him how to kick a football on the family's driveway, it was no surprise that it came naturally.

"Pretty soon after that, the kicker for his little league team didn't show up for a game, so Hunter had to fill in," Sid said. "He's been kicking ever since."

Lawrence had tried various positions in middle school, but by the ninth grade his focus was solely on kicking. Much of his free time was spent at different kicking camps, and one of his mentors became Jamie Kohl, a nationally-known kicking coach based in Wisconsin.

By the time he was a senior at Boerne (Tex.) High School, Lawrence was one of the most sought-after kickers in the country. On one of his recruiting visits to Austin, as he watched former Texas kicker David Pino during a Longhorns practice, coach Mack Brown approached him on the sideline.

"Hunter," he said, "when you come here, all I expect you to do is make every kick."

With one college game remaining, Lawrence has done just that.

Well, almost.

Lawrence is the most accurate kicker in Texas history, having made 32 of 37 field goal attempts (86.5 percent) and 120 of 121 extra point tries (99.2 percent) in 45 games. Lawrence said the presence of backup Ryan Bailey is one of the main reasons for his success because he knows how replaceable he is if he starts to flounder.

"I've been more nervous in some of our practices than our games," Lawrence said.

Still, as good as he's been, last month's kick against Nebraska marked the first time in Lawrence's career – high school included – that he'd made a game-winning field goal as the clock expired. Earlier this season he'd connected on three field goals in a 16-13 victory against Oklahoma, but none of them carried the same type of pressure as the kick against the Cornhuskers.

Lawrence said he realized he may have a chance to be a hero when Texas got the ball back trailing 12-10 with 1:44 remaining.

"With about a minute left, I started thinking about all the possibilities, and I got kind of excited," Lawrence said. "I said, 'I have to calm myself down.' "

Lawrence didn't panic then, and he didn't flinch when Suh – who had blocked three kicks during the regular season – poked his head in the huddle. Lawrence said he barely even heard him.

After watching so many kickers at the professional and college level lose their jobs because of mental mistakes and slumps, Lawrence said he knows the most important thing to a kicker's success is the ability to maintain focus.

"You can't get too up or down," he said. "A lot of guys … if they miss a few here or there, they let it get to them. You've got to let the last game go and treat every kick the same."

Lawrence's teammates weren't surprised he made the kick.

"Hunter's always wanted to be on that stage," McCoy said. "He's been asking me all year to get there."

Now Lawrence and McCoy are preparing for an even bigger stage Thursday in Pasadena. Although both players would prefer a lopsided win, they know the last – and biggest – game of their college careers could come down to one final possession. One final kick.

"If that happens, so be it," Sid Lawrence said. "I told my wife that I think my heart could handle it one more time. She laughed and said, 'I'm not sure mine could.' "