LINCOLN — Pat Smith had job security at Western Illinois, where he'd made all 10 of his field-goal attempts last season and could have returned as the Leathernecks' top kicker for his senior year.
Smith was playing close to his home of Quincy, Ill., and had some recognition, being named a 2012 finalist for the Fred Mitchell Award, which goes to the nation's outstanding kicker from a school outside the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But he wanted more.
Nebraska supplied an opportunity, and now Smith and sophomore Mauro Bondi are locked in what Husker assistant Ross Els characterized as “a hell of a battle” two weeks before the season-opening game.
“We are charting everything right now,” Els said. “And they're neck-and-heck with this thing.”
The Huskers are looking to replace Brett Maher, who handled every NU kicking duty the last two seasons.
Bondi, a scholarship player from Boca Raton, Fla., looked like the heir apparent last winter and spring — until Smith left Western Illinois after three years.
It was a leap of faith by Smith, who had started his career at an FBS school by redshirting at Missouri in 2009.
“He wanted to play big-time football, and we're happy to have him,” said Els, the Huskers' special teams coordinator. “But, yeah, that just shows how competitive the kid is.”
The challenge also has been well-received by Bondi, who had been waiting his turn at NU by redshirting last season after being used lightly the year before.
Bondi said his urgency started to grow in January after Maher made his last kicks in the Capital One Bowl. Els said he saw it through the spring, too.
The arrival of Smith has made him focus that much more.
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“You just got to be ready to go,” Bondi said. “I want the starting job.”
Bondi said the competition that cranked up when Smith arrived has been good for all involved. But he never reassessed the situation or changed his outlook, and saw it as no different than if the Huskers had added competition or depth at any other position.
“When I knew he was coming in, I just focused on what I had to do,” Bondi said. “I can't control the way he kicks, so I just go out there and do my job to the best of my ability. But it definitely brings out the competitor in both of us.”
They've both been pretty sharp, Els said. It might be a small window to prove themselves — maybe four or five kicks apiece in live action during a practice — but that goes with the job.
“We've been pretty consistent in showing what we can do,” Bondi said. “And I think the coaches are liking that right now.”
Neither player has a redshirt season remaining, so somebody will be disappointed, unless Nebraska splits the duties somehow. Redshirt freshman Sam Foltz is expected to handle the punting.
“I can't tell you who's going to kick off or who's going to kick short field goals, long field goals, extra points … it's just too early right now,” Els said. “We're going to start putting them in tougher and tougher situations, but it's dead even right now.”
What is clear is that they have a high standard to meet. Maher and Alex Henery combined to make 107 of 126 field goals the last six seasons (84.9 percent). Among those before them were future NFL kickers Kris Brown and Josh Brown.
“There's a lot of tradition, which I find really great,” Bondi said. “It's another thing that helps me and motivates me to be my best and continue that. That's why I came here.”