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Rams going young at kicker, punter

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 | 6:55 p.m. CDT; updated 9:21 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 1, 2012
St. Louis Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein sets to kick the ball during NFL training camp at the team's training facility in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS — For the St. Louis Rams, going young at positions that will be in the spotlight on fourth down is only partly about rebuilding.

New general manager Les Snead said measured expectations of a franchise that totaled just 15 victories in the last five seasons factored into the decision to cut ties with veteran kicker Josh Brown and punter Donnie Jones in favor of promising young legs.

Especially in the case of kicker Greg Zuerlein, drafted in the sixth round minutes before the Rams made the call to Brown telling him he'd been released, it was capitalizing on a kid who's right at home beyond the 50-yard line.

"Our mantra here is we're not rebuilding," Snead said. "So, we see this guy as a weapon. We can roll him out before the half and attempt a 65-yarder, and we may steal three points."

At 6-foot-5, undrafted John Hekker of Oregon State has a frame Snead calls ideal for a long career at punter. He's the favorite to replace Jones, now with the Houston Texans.

"Definitely, it's a great position to be in," Hekker said. "It's an amazing spot to be in as a rookie. Whoever comes out on top is going to help us win some games."

Of the four kickers in camp, only one had been in an NFL camp before this July. That means plenty of youthful exuberance.

"Ah, a ton of fun," Hekker said. "Almost too much fun."

There's no better time to make a clean break. The Rams (No. 28 in AP Pro32) can live with some rookie mistakes, given they tied the Colts for the NFL's worst record last year at 2-14 and have earned the first or second draft pick four of the last five seasons.

"Considering where we are as a franchise, you're not scared to do it," Snead said. "Growing pains. Spilled milk, I call it."

Jettisoning the 33-year-old Brown saves salary cap space, plus he was coming off one of his worst seasons. Brown, now competing with Nick Folk for the job with the New York Jets, was 21 for 28 last season and far from clutch, plus he's entering the final year of a five-year, $14.2 million deal.

At the small college level, Zuerlein was nearly can't-miss. He doesn't seem in awe kicking for dollars, either, chuckling at a question about the increased pressure.

"It's a little bigger spotlight from what I'm used to," Zuerlein said. "I like it. The sky's the limit right now."

Zuerlein excelled in the Rams' home state at Missouri Western State University, setting an NCAA Division II record with 21 consecutive field goals, nine of which were 50 or more yards, and missed just one of 24 attempts overall. Twice, he connected from 58 yards.

On a 65-yard attempt that was less than a foot wide to the right during practice on Tuesday, Zuerlein had more than enough distance. With the clock ticking down at the half during the season, they won't need exceptional field position to take a shot.

"His range is growing by the day," Snead said. "There's nobody better. He might not have been the first kicker drafted, but he was our No. 1 choice."

Zuerlein played one season at Missouri Western after transferring when Nebraska-Omaha moved to Division I and dropped football and wrestling.  Building the streak in college may have proved helpful in getting to the pros, though Zuerlein professed to be unaware while it was happening.

"I didn't know anything about that. My parents, talking after the game they'd just tell me 'Good job,'" Zuerlein said. "It never really entered my head, 'Hey, you know, I've got this thing going for me.'"

The lone miss was from 29 yards in the opener. In the season finale he was 3-for-3, all from beyond the 50.

"I try not to think about that stuff because you don't have to make all those kicks at one time, you just make them one at a time," Zuerlein said. "I think that really is the biggest thing in getting me where I am right now."

Hekker was high on the Rams' list of players to call right after the draft ended. He averaged 44 yards his senior year, had 52 punts of 50 yards or longer for his college career and has been making directional punts since his freshman year with 87 career efforts downed inside the 20.

The Rams are putting an emphasis on that after the Cardinals' Patrick Peterson returned a pair of punts for touchdowns last year.

"It's an acquired skill, something you've got to work on a lot, get a lot of reps at it," Hekker said. "Limiting the return is what we're aiming for, using the sideline as your 12th defender, forcing fair catches or having them catch it and step out of bounds."

That may mean sacrificing gaudy overall numbers for the good of the team.

"The only people I'm trying to impress are the coaches," Hekker said. "I'm not really worried about smashing 70 yarders or whatever."

That's exactly what his patient bosses want to hear.


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