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Watch now: Illinois kicker James McCourt credits record-breaking career to teammates
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Watch now: Illinois kicker James McCourt credits record-breaking career to teammates

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CHAMPAIGN — James McCourt now stands alone in history.

Illinois' sixth-year kicker booted 52- and 53-yard field goals in the third and fourth quarters, respectively, of last week's 37-30 home loss to UTSA to become the program's all-time leader in 50-yard field goals. McCourt's first 50-yarder against the Roadrunners moved him into a tie with former teammate Chase McLaughlin, who now starts for the Cleveland Browns, and the next one put him in sole possession of the No. 1 spot with six 50-yard field goals in his college career.

After one-upping his former counterpart and mentor, McCourt said he wasn't necessarily eager to let McLaughlin know he was bumped down to second place.

"He actually texted me," McCourt said Tuesday. "I was a bit timid to reach out to him. I didn't want to kind of rub it in his face, but he was a good sport about it. He said, 'Good job' and everything, so that was really nice to hear from him."

Instead of an individual accomplishment, McCourt views his latest milestone more as a joint accolade between him and McLaughlin because of their close relationship. The two were teammates from 2016-18, with McLaughlin winning the starting job all three years before moving on to the NFL. McCourt assumed the starting role in 2019. Despite no longer sharing the same locker room, the two still talk frequently about the nuances of kicking.

McCourt credits McLaughlin with helping him find the balance between using the full force of his leg and not overdoing it. Early on in his career, McCourt said he tried to "muscle" the ball on certain kicks, but now he's realized that going all out isn't always necessary and that a well-calculated "85% swing" — like on his six 50-yarders — usually does the trick.

"Chase had a lot to do with it," McCourt said. "I love picking his mind about stuff because he's had a lot of experience with a lot of great kickers. You know (Adam) Vinatieri for a couple weeks with the Colts, Robbie Gould out in San Francisco, he's talked to them and got to know those guys, and I just try to get as much as I can from them through Chase.

"And then kind of maturing yourself. You practice so much in the offseason you kind of learn your swing. You learn what works for you, what doesn't work for you, a lot of experimenting."

Another tip MCourt said he picked up from McLaughlin is "don't practice when you play." The last thing on McCourt's mind when goes in the game for a field goal attempt is his swing or any other part of his mechanics.

After all, McCourt has already done the action countless times before and more times than not to perfection, according to first-year Illini coach Bret Bielema. He said McCourt "kicked himself into history" Monday and isn't surprised one bit because of the focus he's seen from him, place holder Blake Hayes — the 2019 Big Ten Punter of the Year — and long snapper Ethan Tabel.

"I actually use them as an example with the rest of our team on Sunday nights (during film review) like, 'Why (do) those things happen?'" Bielema said Thursday. "They don't happen by chance. They don't just happen to make a field goal, they don't just happen to put the ball on the 1-yard line (on a punt), they don't just happen to have a perfect snap.

"They prepare, they execute and they do it routinely every day the same exact way."

Since Bielema's hiring in December, McCourt and Hayes have been nicknamed "The Lads" because of their overseas roots. McCourt and Hayes were born in Ireland and Australia, respectively. And while Tabel, a Barrington, Illinois, native, doesn't exactly fit the criteria to be the third "Lad," McCourt said he is still an invaluable part of his and Hayes' success.

"Ethan can't go unnoticed either, Ethan does his job," McCourt said. "He's kind of the common denominator between (me and Hayes). He snaps for the field goals, he snaps for the punts and the fact that his name isn't mentioned is a good thing because he's not messing up. He probably doesn't get enough credit for what he does."

McCourt added that it's surreal to take his place among the Illinois greats and to share his latest feat with his teammates, both past and present. One day he'll take a moment to truly reflect, but for now his main focus is to help his program rebound.

The Illini have a chance to bounce back from their first loss of the year in their first road game Saturday at Virginia.

"Just having your name in any book, in any history book, in any statistic book here (at Illinois) means a lot. (But) again, statistics isn't the main reason you kick, isn't the main reason you do this," McCourt said. "You love doing this stuff because you want to win. That's what it all comes down to. You want to perform out there, you want to put points on the board for your team.

"I don't really go out there with the intent to break records. I go out there with the intent to try and win a game for the guys, and the fact that records come along with that is a very humbling thing."


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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