Wake's Popham more confident after surprise '08 starts

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

As the backup to one of the nation's most prolific kickers, Wake Forest's Shane Popham knew his role -- sit tight and learn from Sam Swank.

"I thought maybe I'd get in for a PAT if we were up by a lot of points, or maybe go in for a punt or two," said Popham, then a redshirt freshman. "But I never thought I'd be starting a game, let alone playing often."

He thought wrong.

Swank suffered a strained quadriceps muscle at practice in the week leading up to the Oct. 9, 2008 Clemson game. It wasn't until that Wednesday that Popham learned he'd be starting in Swank's place. Nobody in Winston-Salem, though, thought Popham would be the Demon Deacons' punter and placekicker for the next six games. Popham made 7-of-12 field goals during that span.

"The first kick was nerve wracking," said Popham, who kicked field goals of 22 and 32 yards in the 12-7 win over the Tigers. "My legs were shaking. But after the first half was over, I didn't really feel any more pressure."

It proved to be a valuable experience, as Swank was a senior last season and eventually would have to be replaced. Popham led the team with a 39.2 punting average, and averaged 41.2 yards per punt over the last five games. Popham is expecting some competition this summer from Cline Beam, a former midfielder on the soccer team who will join the football team, and there will also be a few incoming freshmen kickers in the mix.

Popham said he spent this spring trying to become more consistent, and working on his follow-through and technique.

"I think they're going to depend on me a little bit more," he said. "Last year I know coach Grobe was kind of trying to shy away from putting too much pressure on me. He didn't want to put too many big kicks (on me), but hopefully they'll trust in me like they trusted in Sam the past few years."

Popham did learn from Swank last year -- just not by watching him as much as he thought he would.

"Sam was the best," Popham said. "He's the one who calmed me down after a missed kick, or something didn't go my way. He'd sit there and talk to me and say, 'Relax, have fun.' He played a big part in keeping me calm on the sidelines."

This time around, though, he shouldn't be as nervous.

"It's really valuable just to know I can do it, that I can be successful, that I can make kicks and compete day in and day out," Popham said. "Just being in the game and the atmosphere and being comfortable in it is a huge boost to my confidence."