Keeping the faith: How Caleb Shudak stayed the course to become Iowa’s No. 1 kicker
The sixth-year senior had to wait his turn, but is finally the Iowa football team’s go-to placekicker.
September 23, 2021
Caleb Shudak is used to waiting his turn.
So, it was almost fitting when Indiana head coach Tom Allen decided to call all three of his timeouts right before Shudak was set to attempt his first field goal as the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 kicker in Iowa’s season-opener at Kinnick Stadium.
Shudak was lined up for a 41-yard attempt that would be the final play of the first half, and potentially give Iowa a 31-3 advantage after two quarters of action. It seemed both teams were ready to get into the locker rooms and prepare for the second half. But Allen had not used a single one of his first-half timeouts, however, and he was determined to use every last one of them before the play clock hit zero. Allen was trying to ice Shudak, even though his team was down by four possessions.
Iowa fans booed after every timeout, growing more restless with each blow of the referee’s whistle, but Shudak remained calm.
Patience is nothing new for the sixth-year kicker from Council Bluffs, Iowa.
When he arrived on campus as a walk-on in 2016, Shudak couldn’t have forecast the long journey that took him from redshirting his freshman year to a starting role over half a decade later — a journey that saw him crumble in pain, fight through rehab, sit behind an All-American, enter the NCAA transfer portal before eventually choosing to remain a Hawkeye, earn a scholarship, and then finally hit the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
But Shudak didn’t have to sit behind anyone as a prep star in western Iowa. Instead, he stood on the field, playing nearly every snap.
High school hero
At Lewis Central High School, Shudak was as close to “that guy” as someone can get. Everybody in Council Bluffs knew the Shudak name.
Caleb’s father, Jeff Shudak, had been a standout kicker at Iowa State following an illustrious career at St. Albert High School in Council Bluffs. Jeff’s brothers Steve, Danny, Mike, and Marty were also accomplished football players at St. Albert.
“The Shudak family in general, I mean that’s a huge family,” said Jim Duggan, Caleb’s high school coach at Lewis Central, who played with some of Caleb’s uncles at St. Albert in the 1970s and 80s. “If you grew up in Council Bluffs, you knew who the Shudaks were, and you knew [who] Jeff was because he went on to Iowa State and had a great career as a kicker.”
Caleb had enrolled at St. Albert for his freshman year of high school but then transferred to Lewis Central in time for the football season. There, he didn’t just excel as a kicker, but as an all-state athlete in multiple sports.
Caleb played baseball and tennis along with football — Duggan said Caleb “did everything.”
Caleb also did everything on the football field at Lewis Central, playing wide receiver and running back on offense, linebacker and strong safety on defense, as well as handling the kicking duties.
Duggan recalled a story that perfectly illustrated Caleb’s multiple roles under the Friday night lights.
“I remember one game,” Duggan said. “He literally had come off the field, playing a full series of defense, went straight to offense, he caught a pass, a long pass on a third-down — we were still short. If my memory serves me right, it was right before half. And I think it was against Sioux City East or somebody, and we lined him up and he kicked a 53 or 56-yard field goal. Just amazing what he did.”
But with his dad’s past with special teams, having been named an All-Big Eight kicker at Iowa State, placekicking was the way forward for Caleb.
The dedication Caleb put toward his kicking and his father’s expertise created the perfect storm to develop Caleb’s leg into something special.
Duggan knew not to mess with it.
“His work ethic was just off the grid,” Duggan said. “You know, I mean he and his dad, they would be out there kicking and doing kicking drills and we didn’t even, as coaches, we just left him alone because we didn’t want to screw him up. I mean, his dad, they were just unconscious as far as the work ethic. Incredibly dedicated and religious to becoming a better kicker, and so you just knew that he couldn’t help but become a great one.”
Caleb’s journey to becoming a great one got off to a slow start. As a freshman, he was one of the four kickers vying for the starting spot at Iowa in 2016. He was passed over in favor of Keith Duncan, another freshman walk-on.
The 2016 season was a record year as far as the number of specialists on the Hawkeyes’ roster, with eight spots taken up by either punters, kickers, or long snappers. Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz told the media he was going to do whatever he had to do to get the best guys on the field. And Duncan performed the best in practice sessions. With Duncan in the spotlight, Caleb redshirted.
Then, after his initial redshirt season had ended in June 2017, Caleb was preparing for his second fall camp. But he hit another setback.
The injury bug
Caleb’s right leg gave out during a routine training session.
On an otherwise ordinary day during the offseason, Duncan and Caleb were practicing together. Then, Shudak’s 2017 season abruptly ended.
Duncan says he heard a snap during a kicking drill.
“I was actually there about a couple inches away from him when he got his injury,” Duncan said. “We were doing a little offseason workout. I had my back turned and I heard a snap. And I turned my head and Caleb was on the ground, kind of in shock. And I was like, ‘What just happened?’ And he looked at coach and said, ‘Hey, I think I just tore my Achilles,’ like in a very monotone voice.”
But the injury set the stage for Caleb to put his dedication on display once again and fight through rehab to get back in the field.
He would have to dig deeper than he ever had before, rebuilding from the ground up.
A torn Achilles, for even the best athletes in the world, means the end of their season, a major surgical procedure, and many months of rebuilding their strength through a rehab process that starts, quite literally, from the beginning.
“Relearning how to kick after I got hurt was really mentally taxing for me,” Caleb said. “I had to learn how to walk. It was really frustrating seeing I’d made so much improvement since I got here and all of a sudden I’m starting from ground zero again.’
Right after the Achilles injury, Jeff said that his wife, Trudi Shudak, stayed by Caleb’s bedside in the hospital, and then for a week while he recovered from the surgery in a hotel.
Caleb slowly came to terms with the injury, and eventually put a positive spin on the experience. Caleb’s thinking shifted from “I have to start over,” to “I get to start fresh.”
“It took a while to change that mindset to, ‘I’m starting from ground zero, I can be even better than I was,’” Caleb said. “‘I’m starting with previous knowledge, I just have to change some minor things.’”
Caleb relied on his strong religious faith in times of struggle through many months of rehabilitation. Religion has been a part of Caleb’s life since he was little.
“[Religion] was definitely key,” Caleb said. “Having people around me that, you know, were also keeping their faith to instill that, you know, God was there, God was gonna help me, you know, everything happens for a reason. You know, God gives his toughest battles to his toughest soldiers.”
Caleb was strong enough to suit up and kick in warmups of the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl, roughly six months after his injury.
But just because he had recovered from the torn Achilles didn’t mean he had earned a starting spot. He would have to wait even longer for that.
Former Iowa kicker Miguel Recinos kept the Hawkeyes’ starting job in 2018 after beating out Duncan in 2017. After Recinos graduated, the door opened for a Shudak-Duncan fall-camp clash in 2019.
Duncan hadn’t had it easy up until that point either. After starting as a true freshman and converting 38-of-39 PATs and 9-of-11 field goals, including the game-winning kick at Kinnick when the Hawkeyes upset No. 3 Michigan under the lights, Duncan had to sit behind Recinos for two seasons as well.
After an offseason of nearly neck-and-neck competition, Duncan won the job. Another twist in the road for the battle-tested Shudak.
Caleb said he took the camp loss hard. Although Shudak handled the kickoff duties in 2019, with a stronger leg than Duncan, he felt he should be doing more. So, with an eye toward his football future, the walk-on entered the transfer portal.
“He put his name out there and obviously he wanted to do everything that year,” Jeff said. ”He felt he won the competition in camp that fall.”
And Caleb received a scholarship offer from Wake Forest while in the portal. The coaches at Iowa decided they couldn’t let Caleb get away, offering him a scholarship soon after. The scholarship ultimately kept Caleb at Iowa, even though he had not attempted a single field goal in a game in four seasons.
The scholarship was the ultimate sign that the Hawkeyes wanted Caleb on their roster, and he took that to heart.
Staying true to form, Caleb went to work again, turning yet another bump in the road into motivation.
“I think [losing the job to Duncan] is what made me the best kicker I could be,” Caleb said. “That really kind of opened my eyes realizing, you know, I can get better, there’s still room for improvement.”
Jeff said that Caleb’s internal drive kept him determined to overcome the multiple obstacles in his Hawkeye career.
“He’s somebody with a lot of drive,” Jeff said of his son. “I’ve never had to tell him, ‘Go practice,’ or, ‘Go do this,’ he always did it on his own. I never did feel like he was going to quit. [Caleb] did tell me that one of the coaches, when he came back, said, ‘We thought you were just going to quit.’ He’s like, ‘No, I want to keep doing this.’”
During the next two seasons, Duncan and Caleb pushed each other in practice as great friends, but also intense competitors.
Caleb’s skill in practice kept Duncan from ever getting comfortable as the starter, despite the fact that Duncan was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award — given to the nation’s best kicker — in 2019 and was named second-team all-Big Ten in 2020.
Even though Duncan was racking up honors, Caleb was always right on his tail. Ferentz often said that he considered Duncan and Shudak to both be capable of being starters, and Duncan only slightly ended up winning the No. 1 job.
Duncan said there were times he thought Shudak could take his job as the starter.
“I think we both understood that once you become complacent, things start to go downhill,” Duncan said. “So the goal for both of us was to not become complacent. If he had been the starter, I have no doubt in my mind that he would have come in and succeeded. That just goes back to the work ethic. I really, really respect Caleb for that. Caleb is an ultimate competitor. He has a championship-level mindset and wants to win.”
Although he never did take Duncan’s job, Caleb continued kickoff duties while Duncan played his final season for the Hawkeyes in 2020, continuing to hone his craft on the practice field.
And then, when Duncan moved on after last season, the stage was set for Shudak.
The first boot
Shudak was, at long last, the starting kicker when the Hawkeyes opened this season against Indiana.
Shudak handled the kickoffs and extra points without a hitch. Then, it was finally time for the first field goal at the end of the half.
Allen made Shudak wait a little longer to kick his first ball in the starting role, but that didn’t stop Shudak from hitting the perfect kick.
“By the time that rep came, I was comfortable and confident in the play, the wind, everything,” Shudak said. “It hit me in the locker room [at halftime] like, ‘Oh, man, that was finally the rep.’ I’ve worked, you know, I’ve probably hit 20-some thousand balls in my time here.
“I tore my Achilles. I’ve, you know, hurt my hamstring, lost the job to Keith,” he added. “It hit me in the locker room, where I was like, ‘That just paid off,’ you know, ‘That was the rep I’ve been working for,’
“‘I spent six years trying to do what I just did.’”