When Griffin Oakes got an opportunity, he did more than make the most of it.

He seized it, ran with it and hasn’t let it go.

He doesn’t plan to.

A former standout at Greenwood Community High School, Oakes is the starting place-kicker for the Indiana University football team.

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In less than two full seasons on the job, he not only has played a prominent role in the Hoosiers’ best start in 25 years, he’s established himself as one of the nation’s top kickers.

Already the owner of the longest field goal in Indiana history, he leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage (90 percent), ranks fourth nationally in field goals made on the season and is renowned for booming kickoffs that frequently result in touchbacks.

Not bad for a player who joined the Hoosiers as a walk-on, sat out his freshman season as a redshirt and briefly considered giving up the game.

“It’s definitely very humbling,” Oakes said of his success, which has played out in the context of winning. “Especially coming from a smaller town like Greenwood and being a part of this, it’s great.

“Playing on TV and showing what I can do, it’s definitely very humbling.”

A two-year starter, Oakes inherited the job early last season when then-redshirt freshman Aaron Del Grosso was hampered by a groin injury. Oakes debuted in a win against Missouri, impressed with his accuracy and leg strength, and the job has been his ever since.

He played in 10 games last season and wasted no time making an impact.

Against Maryland, he booted a school-record 58-yard field goal that was also the longest in the nation last season.

On three occasions, he tied the school record by kicking three field goals in a single game. He did that against Maryland, Rutgers and during a win against Purdue.

On the season, Oakes made 13 of 18 fields attempts and connected on all 23 of his extra-point tries. He averaged 62.2 yards per kickoff with 21 touchbacks, which ranked fifth in the Big Ten and 29th nationally.

He’s enjoying an even better follow-up season.

Through six games, Oakes has nine field goals and has made 22 of 23 extra points.

Oakes credits his improvement to concentrating on a specific area during the offseaon.

“Definitely my consistency,” he said. “Coming out of high school, people thought of me as the guy with the big leg. But I wanted to really focus on being consistent and still having the big leg.

“I really, really pride myself on trying to stay as consistent as possible.”

Oakes’ consistency is one of the reasons the Hoosiers are off to their best start since 1990 and working toward a bowl bid.

Yet as thrilling as it all is, there was a time in the not-too-distance past when Oakes wasn’t sure he would even be on the team, let alone be the starter.

A preferred walk-on in 2013, Oakes fully expected to win the job and get to back to the business of kicking in games. But when he got to Bloomington, reality instantly set in.

Away from home, detached from his high school routine and just another freshman face in a crowded room, Oakes quickly found out life in the Big Ten was markedly different than life at Greenwood.

“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to go down there and beat out whoever they have immediately,’ because I thought I was this big and bad senior coming out of high school,” Oakes said.

“And I came down here, and life hit me in the face a little bit. Not waking up and having your mom have breakfast, waking up early (for practice) and realizing you don’t really have guys who care about you as much. They don’t really care what you do. If you don’t make it, that’s fine with them.

“That was a huge reality check for me.”

So much so that he considered giving up football and concentrate solely on his getting his degree in exercise science. But fortunately for himself and the Hoosiers, Oakes stuck it out.

“It definitely killed the confidence a little bit,” Oakes said. “There were honestly times when I thought maybe this isn’t for me. Maybe I’ll just take a step back and focus on school.

“But I knew I had to really tough it out until the next year to see what happened and see what kind of competition came along.”

To date, Oakes — who is now on scholarship — has won all the competitions for the starting job. But he approaches it as though it could be taken away at any time, which it could, because there are no guarantees from week to week.

Such is the life in a hyper-competitive environment where playing time is strictly performance-based.

“There’s still competition,” Oakes said. “There’s always guys competing, so I always just kind of take every game like if I mess up this game, I could easily just go back down to the twos (second unit).

“I have to have the confidence like I’m the solid (starter), but I have to have the mindset that it’s not set in stone.”

Although he has two more years of eligibility and isn’t thinking beyond the next game, Oakes has displayed many of the qualities coveted by the NFL, among them accuracy, leg strength and the ability to perform under pressure.

He doesn’t dwell on the next level, but it is on his radar.

“Obviously it’s a little too early right now, but it kind of sneaks in your mind a little bit, especially when you’ve seen a little bit of success,” he said. “But you kind of put that on the back burner as much as you can.”

For the present, Oakes’ focus is on the Hoosiers’ and the prospect of a marquee bowl bid.

Although Indiana needs only six wins to be bowl eligible, Oakes’ insists the Hoosiers are on a much bolder mission than merely slipping into the postseason.

“I always like to think the sky’s the limit. Anything can happen in college football,” he said. “There’s not much difference between a team that is 10-2 and 2-10. In reality, there’s not. I don’t want to limit ourselves by saying, ‘Oh, let’s just win six games.’ We can get eight, nine, 10, as many as we want.

“We just have to keep playing as a team and keep attacking every team one week at a time.”

The Oakes File

Name: Griffin Oakes

Age: 20

Position: Kicker

Year: Redshirt sophomore

Size: 5-foot-10, 200 pounds

High school: Greenwood Community (2013)

Major: Exercise science

2014 highlights: Made 13 of 18 field goal attempts and was 23 of 23 on PATs; connected on a school-record 58-yard field against Maryland, which was the longest in the nation last year and the 10th-longest in Big Ten history; was named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after the Maryland game; four-time IU Special Teams Player of the Week; Academic All-Big Ten selection

2013: Redshirted after joining the team as a walk-on

Parents: Pete Oakes and Vanessa Mahan

Author photo
Rick Morwick is sports editor of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rmorwick@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.