Rams' rookie kicker impressive thus far

Rams' rookie kicker impressive thus far

Published Aug. 15, 2012 10:09 a.m. ET

ST. LOUIS — He was walking off the practice field feeling lucky, his catapult of a right leg having worked its magic again.

"My leg was tired and nothing was going as far as it normally does," said St. Louis Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein, after he booted a 64-yard field goal in a training camp session Tuesday at Rams Park.

He was walking off the practice field feeling relieved, after the ball smacked the crossbar and tumbled forward for the conversion that drew an "Ohhhhhhh!" from fans nearby. Blue-and-gold faithful were impressed. He felt incomplete.

Imagine what Greg the Leg could do with a clean swing.

"I was talking to myself, because I thought it was going to be short," Zuerlein said.

"I was like, ‘Short! Short! It's going to be short!' And then it skipped in off the crossbar. Lucky me."

Kickers are background noise at most NFL training camps. They are part of the bruising work to build toward a new season, but they tend to their tasks in a distant orbit. They are removed from the grunts and cracks of 11-on-11 drills. They sweat, but not with the same urgency as left tackle Rodger Saffold before Sam Bradford cradles a snap. They are a Caribbean cruise to the rest of the team's overtime shift in a mineshaft.

But enter Zuerlein, 24, a rookie from Missouri Western State, drafted in the sixth round in April. He has busted the sleepy-specialist stereotype in the first two weeks of camp. Sure, there has been little on the line other than first impressions — "He really hasn't had any pressure put on him yet," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said — but his rocket foot has entertained with A-list quality. And this time of year, there's nothing wrong with a few fireworks.

Fifty-yard tries? Zuerlein has made those look routine as a short iron approach at the local muni.

Sixty-yard tries? His cult following swells each time he taunts the uprights.

"Oh, Greg the Leg, man," Rams punter Johnny Hekker said. "I'm waiting for the T-shirts. I'm waiting for T-shirts, that's for sure, (for) fans to hold up big legs or something in the stands —that would be awesome. Who knows? . . . I think it's great. He's a young kid out of a small school, but he really has a big opportunity to make an impact on this team and help us win games. I'm behind him 110 percent."

Tuesday offered another example of why so many are behind him. Late in practice Fisher watched as Zuerlein, who made a 37-yard field goal in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, began a display of kicking composure before the whole team. First, there was an attempt from 50 yards, then 52, then the 64-yard effort that drew gasps. Hekker raised his arms above his head after the ball trickled over the crossbar.

The Leg? Business as usual.

"I always thought I was pretty mentally sharp in college," said Zuerlein, who went 9 for 9 on field goals of 50-plus yards last season and was named an All-American by six organizations after his senior year but somehow never received an invite to the NFL combine. "When I got here for those OTAs (in the spring), I felt I was a little bit behind. That was really a good learning experience for me . . . and it was a lot more comfortable when I got here for the first day of training camp.

"I really haven't thought about trying to prove myself. I've always thought kicking is kicking at any level. I just figured as long as I went out there and showed everyone what I can do then everything else would take care of itself. Up to this point, it has."

To this point, Zuerlein has many wondering how far his foot will take him. The Lincoln, Neb., native played three seasons at Nebraska-Omaha before transferring to the St. Joseph, Mo., campus. He set an NCAA record with 21 consecutive field goals made last season, including two from 58 yards.

Fisher had such a high opinion of the kicker's skill that nine-year veteran Josh Brown was sent packing in late April. The Rams saved $2.7 million in cap space in the process. Brown, 33, spent four years with the team and made 21-of-28 attempts last season.

"Bigger than Greg's leg strength, I'd say he's mentally unflappable," Hekker said. "He's real solid — doesn't get too high, too low emotionally. He misses kicks and is upset at himself a little bit, but he just gets back on a single-track mind of making field goals, and he does a good job of staying on top of his mental game as well as a physical game."

Added Fisher: "He has a great personality for what we're asking him to do."

There's a story Zuerlein tells that shows as much. Last November, he walked on the field early with a punter from Missouri Western State before a home game against Northwest Missouri State. A stiff breeze was at their backs — "hurricane winds," Zuerlein said with a smile — so the pair decided to test the kicker's range.

Eventually, Zuerlein cranked one from 74 yards. That's right, 74 yards. It's his personal best in any situation.

He was messing around, but the moment showed the Leg is nothing to be messed with.

"As I developed through college, I felt I would have some opportunities," Zuerlein said. "I didn't think it would be anything like this."

Perhaps, but he hasn't needed luck along the way.