There’s an old saying in sports that you don’t lose your starting job due to injury.
When the injury has healed, the spot is waiting for you, kept warm by the understudy in the starter’s absence.
Unfortunately for Nick Tausch, his understudy - David Ruffer - turned out to be the Laurence Olivier of college football kickers.
Tausch, who set a Notre Dame record as a freshman in 2009 by connecting on 14 straight field goals, came down with a mysterious ankle injury during pre-game at Pittsburgh. Ruffer filled in. Boy, did he fill in.
Ruffer made all five of his field goal attempts to conclude the 2009 season, then won the battle in the pre-season of 2010. If the competition remained open-ended heading into the season, Ruffer quickly closed the door, converting the first 23 field-goal attempts of the campaign before finally missing in the Sun Bowl against Miami, due in part to a leg injury of his own.
Ruffer is gone from the Irish roster this spring, finally relinquishing the stranglehold on the position following a 10-of-16 field-goal effort in his final season in an Irish uniform.
“It was weird, but at the same time, I was happy for Ruffer and what he did he,” said Tausch, a senior this fall with two years of eligibility as the coaching staff wisely preserved his junior season in ’11.
“He was a great kicker, a great guy and a good friend of mine. I’m glad he took advantage of his opportunity and did well. What he did to help the team win was awesome.”
Little could Tausch anticipate on that mid-November night in Pittsburgh that a freakish injury would derail his kicking career for the next two seasons.
“I hurt my ankle in pre-game,” said Tausch of the Nov. 14, 2009 game at Heinz Field. “I was kicking and for some reason, my ankle gave out and I couldn’t even hit a PAT. It was horrible. I couldn’t kick. I ended up spraining it from what the doctor said.”
Tausch would attempt just one field goal in 2010 - a converted 34-yarder in the Sun Bowl - over the next two seasons. But now, he’s back in the front-runner’s seat with Ruffer gone, although big-legged sophomore Kyle Brindza - who added punch to Notre Dame’s kickoffs in 2011 - will push him every step of the way heading into the 2012 campaign.
Tausch insists he never lost belief in his abilities.
“That time made me dig deeper and work harder, which made me better,” said Tausch, the 6-foot-0, 200-pounder from Plano, Texas. “So it was kind of a win-win situation. I just went out to practice every day and tried to get better, trying not to be complacent.
“I tried not to take anything for granted, including my spot on the depth chart. I continued to come out and work. No job is ever secure. So you’ve just got to go out there and continue to do well.”
Tausch is eager to get back on the field Saturday for the 83rd annual Blue-Gold Game. The kicks won’t be full-tilt live. But any field goal attempt he makes in front of a live Notre Dame Stadium audience will be his first since the Navy game on Nov. 7, 2009.
“I’m very confident,” said Tausch, whose shoulder-length hair looks like it hasn’t been cut since his last live field-goal attempt. “I’ve been kicking well this spring. I kicked well last year throughout the season.
“I’m really looking forward to the spring game and just getting better. I know I can go out there and make every single kick they give me. It’s just a matter of execution.”
Tausch, who turns 21 less than two weeks after the Blue-Gold Game, was not familiar with the former New York Yankee by the name of Wally Pipp. Pipp, of course, was the first baseman who, as lore would have it, begged out of a game in June of 1925 with a headache.
Lou Gehrig would take Pipp’s place that day…and for the next 2,130 games. Not an exact replica of Tausch’s trials, but a situation somewhat reminiscent.
Tausch isn’t taking anything for granted just because Ruffer is gone.
“Nobody has been told anything about who’s starting,” Tausch said. “It’s one of those things where you have to go out every practice and show the coaches that you’re capable of starting if you want them to put you out there.
“I’m just looking forward to getting back on the field and doing what I know I can do. I want to execute and get back to having fun kicking.”
Tausch’s fun begins anew Saturday afternoon in Notre Dame Stadium.