Rookie might get a foot in the door

ON THE RAVENS

Wagner alum heir apparent to Stover?

The kicking game

June 21, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON

A lot of the Ravens' veterans are a little nervous these days. They have a new coach with a different style, and such distinguished players as quarterback Steve McNair and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden have recently retired.

The Ravens have capable replacements for McNair and some "project" players who might fill in for Ogden. And they just might have a hot-shot rookie kicker, Piotr Czech out of Wagner College, who could push veteran Matt Stover in training camp.

Stover is probably not concerned. Even at age 40, he is still one of the game's top clutch performers. He has been through these battles before, especially during the 1999 season, when the Ravens tried to find several players to replace him.

But it's good to have competition. It makes everybody better.

"Matt Stover is a 19-year veteran, Pro Bowler and viewed as one of the best kickers in his time," Czech said. "It's definitely a tough assignment going against him, but I don't consider myself competition until I establish myself.

"Right now, I'm just soaking up as much as I can from him: his mentality, his technique, how he handles himself."

The Ravens are in no rush to replace Stover, but they would like an heir apparent. To make the 53-man roster, Czech has to perform well on kickoffs in the preseason games. He would handle that duty during the regular season while Stover kicked field goals.

But Czech has been outstanding converting field goals in the minicamps. He has caught the attention of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, even on the long attempts.

"The kid has a live leg," Newsome said. "We knew he was accurate, but he has been doing a lot better job on field goals in the practices than we expected. He just has to keep up the good work."

Czech knows he has to prove himself more than most kickers. He comes from Wagner College, a tiny Football Championship Subdivision school on Staten Island, N.Y., with an enrollment of about 2,000.

The Ravens have that many people standing on both sidelines on game day. When the game is on the line, it's different when it's in front of a crowd of 70,000 instead of 5,000.

"I want the coaches to put the faith in the fact that coming from a small school, that an extra section of fans isn't going to have an effect on me making field goals," said Czech, who was also Wagner's punter last season. "It's not going to change my outlook on the game."

Czech was successful last season. He converted 16 of 19 field-goal attempts, including three of five from 40-49 yards and two of three from 50 or beyond. His longest was from 56 yards.

Czech has shown that he can modify his game. He is tall for a kicker at 6 feet 5. That long stride appeared to make his approach to the ball longer than needed.

In the NFL, seconds matter. Czech shortened his approach after one day with Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg.

"I had to shorten my distance if I wanted to stay here and be an impact player," Czech said. "As soon as I got here and took my first kick, Jerry's eyes lit up and he was staring at me.

"I went back to my room that day and then went outside to make the changes. Any kind of change throws you off until you gain the confidence, but it has helped my accuracy."

Czech is living out a dream. His parents and three brothers moved to the United States from Olesnica, Poland, in late 1987. Czech played soccer until one of his older brothers talked him into kicking before his junior year at Keyport High in New Jersey.

Czech made the switch because he knew he would be attending college at the same time as one of his brothers and that it would mean financial hardship for the family.

Instead, Czech got a scholarship to play football at Wagner, where he set numerous records. He was a long shot to make the Ravens roster, but accuracy on field goals has increased his chances.

"So far, everything is looking real good right now," Czech said. "I can't ask for anything more than I've done. I'm making all my field goals, staying on point, working out and staying in shape. This is something I had to do to help my family out, and I'm on the boat for dreaming big. I plan to stay with it and see where it takes me."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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