'A Michigan legend': Jim Harbaugh thinks Jake Moody will thrive with 49ers

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'A Michigan legend': Jim Harbaugh thinks Jake Moody will thrive with 49ers

There’s a building just beyond the north end zone of Michigan’s practice field that’s been vexing kickers for years.

It sits snug behind goalposts with perhaps 12 to 15 feet of cushion in between. When westerly winds whip through Ann Arbor, they glance off the building and send the flags one way, the field goal attempts another and the kickers into a tizzy.

But not Jake Moody.

“He’s the only kicker that I ever had who wouldn’t make a comment about it or wasn’t frustrated by it,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I had guys lose their stuff over it. Arrrrgggh, the building’s in the way or whatever. He’d just line up and kick.”

It’s the reason Harbaugh and everyone familiar with Moody insist the 49ers’ much-scrutinized decision to draft a kicker in the third round will turn out to be a wise one, even early on: This particular kicker doesn’t get rattled.

Not by a November headwind. Or a frozen surface. Or a twinge in his groin. Or the Michigan State head coach calling three timeouts in a row before a field goal attempt in East Lansing.

San Francisco’s outgoing kicker, Robbie Gould, could be fiery. He twice got into facemask-to-facemask jawing matches with Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and would even shoo cheerleaders off the field so he could go through his halftime routine.

Gould’s replacement?

“The calm, cool, collected Moody won’t be in any shouting matches, I can tell you that,” his Michigan holder, punter Brad Robbins, said with a laugh. “He averages, like, a couple of words an hour.”

As 49ers fans might recall, Harbaugh always pumps up his players. But his praise of Moody goes a step further. He said Moody was “as steady as anyone I’ve ever come across.” He called him “a Michigan legend.” And he said his initial experience with him in 2018 hinted at what his rookie season in San Francisco might be like.

Michigan already had an excellent, established kicker at the time. Big-legged Quinn Nordin was perhaps the most intensely recruited kicker in the history of college football. He announced his intention to go to Penn State with a slick video in which he stepped off a private jet. He later flipped to Michigan after Harbaugh had a much-publicized sleepover at his house. (Nordin’s mom made them pancakes the next morning).

Moody was only 18 when he stepped onto Michigan’s campus, but he won the kickoff job right away. And after an illness prevented Nordin from kicking in a Nov. 17 game against Indiana that year, Moody stepped in and went 6-for-6 on field goals, a Michigan record.

“You don’t see a freshman kicker just come in and be good, which I think bodes well,” Harbaugh said. “Because you don’t see a lot of rookie kickers in the NFL be real good. It usually takes some time. There’s some history and evidence here that says Jake’s gonna be good right away.”

Jake Moody proved his big-leg capabilities when he nailed a 59-yard field goal in the Fiesta Bowl against TCU. (Chris Coduto / Getty Images)

Jay Harbaugh, who is Jim’s son and Michigan’s special teams coordinator, said freshman kickers usually are incomplete. They might be great in practices but shaky in games. They might have booming legs but wobbly accuracy. They might hit their field goals but stink on kickoffs.

Moody arrived fully assembled. Nordin could blast the ball farther, but Moody won kickoffs because he could place the ball precisely where the coaches wanted it, and he never got hurt.

“He was maybe a little bit of an old soul in some ways,” Jay Harbaugh said. “In a really, really good way, he isn’t a very exciting guy. There aren’t any ups and downs. There isn’t some dramatic story of how he struggled and turned it around. He really played well from the jump. I know that’s not super helpful. There’s not a lot of juicy stuff.”

Jay Harbaugh noted he was coaching under his uncle John in Baltimore in 2012 when the Ravens signed Justin Tucker as an undrafted rookie. Tucker would go on to beat out veteran Billy Cundiff, who had made the Pro Bowl two seasons earlier, by the end of training camp. Tucker, 33, is still the Ravens kicker and ranks 20th on the NFL’s all-time field goals list. Gould, 40, ranks eighth.

Kickers are extremely detail oriented. They have to know wind direction, wind speed, humidity, surface conditions and myriad other particulars. Tucker’s gift, Jay Harbaugh said, was that he could master those details without allowing them to master him. He said Moody had the same trait.

“Some kickers can’t draw the line for when enough is enough and when it’s time to just go play,” Jay said. “Everything — a blade of grass, the sun, when the grass has been cut, over-analyzing the wind — they just become (frazzled). Jake’s a pro. He’s not going to be paralyzed by over-analyzing the wind. … The Niners, sometime in the next few years, are going to go to Lambeau to play in the playoffs. Who do you want doing that?”

There have been attempts to throw Moody off his game.

Brandon Kornblue, an ex-Michigan kicker who’s been coaching Moody since he was in seventh grade, said he thought Moody’s most impressive kick — or kicks, as it turned out — came when the Wolverines visited Michigan State in 2021.

Michigan’s rivalry with Ohio State might be more prominent nationally, but there’s a special, burning animus between Michigan and their in-state rivals. Michigan had lost the matchup a year earlier. Moody’s mother is a Michigan State alum while his sister was a student there when the Wolverines arrived in East Lansing two years ago.

“There was a lot of background in that setting,” Kornblue said.

With two seconds before halftime, Moody lined up for a 35-yard field goal and nailed the kick. But Spartans head coach Mel Tucker called a timeout just before the snap. Then he did it again. In fact, Tucker used all three of his timeouts in an effort to psyche out Moody. What stood out to Kornblue was that Moody not only made all four attempts, each was in precisely the same spot. The lesson: You can’t ice a guy who has ice in his veins.

“That told me, ‘You know what? This guy is ready for the next level,’” Kornblue said. “It just further proved to me that there’s no environment that’s going to rattle him. He’s strong, he’s consistent and he’s really kind of unflappable.”

Jim Harbaugh’s favorite kick may have been Moody’s 35-yard game-winner with nine seconds left against Illinois on Nov. 19, which preserved Michigan’s undefeated season.

“We’re down by four and we’ve got to make two field goals,” Harbaugh said. “He misses one of those and we don’t win the game. And that’s when he cemented himself as a Michigan legend. He was already Money Moody. After that game, he’s a legend.”

Jake Moody game-winning field goal against Illinois sealed his “legend” status in Jim Harbaugh’s mind. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Robbins noted that the game-winning kick came in 11 degrees wind chill and with 25 mph gusts at their backs. The more difficult kick, he said, was a 46-yarder into the teeth of that wind in the third quarter.

“With a wind that strong and gusting either left or right — it was flip-flopping — you don’t know if it’s going to push left or right,” he said. “If he doesn’t hit that field goal into that headwind, we don’t have a chance to hit that game-winner.”

From his vantage point as the holder, Robbins can’t see if a kick is going in. Sometimes he can gauge it by the sound of the strike. But he certainly couldn’t get a read by looking up at Moody’s face.

“After he hits the ball you can’t tell if it’s good or bad,” he said. “He has the same reaction either way.”

The only time he’s seen Moody get animated after a kick was just before halftime against TCU in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31. There had been a writeup at the time that questioned Moody’s length strength, which made him eager to prove himself on a 59-yard attempt just before the half.

“He kicked it and immediately went, ‘Let’s f—ing go!,’” Robbins recalled. “If you go back and watch that reaction, he’s already celebrating and I’m trying to look over the line. Is it good? It sounded good. Well, it was just right down the gut with plenty of room to spare. It kind of silenced any talk of him not having the leg.”

(Top photo of Jim Harbaugh and Jake Moody: Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images)