Justin Tucker is coming off a dream season for any NFL kicker, let alone a rookie.
This time a year ago, Tucker was battling incumbent Billy Cundiff for the right to kick for the Ravens. He seized the job and missed just three field goals throughout the season. He started to write the legacy of a clutch kicker when he nailed a game-winning 47-yard kick in Denver and made two more field goals in the Super Bowl.
“He just went out there, kicked the ball and let his mind be free, and he ended up having one of the best years in Ravens history,” punter Sam Koch said. “As a rookie to come in here and do the things he did in big games, it’s a credit to him and all of us working together and the coaches showing him what it’s like to be an NFL kicker.”
In case you missed it, I wrote this story on the relationship between Tucker, Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox -- also known as “The Wolf Pack.” A central theme was that the three of them like to laugh and have a good time, and the goofiest of the bunch is Tucker. He was more extroverted than most rookies, and Cox thinks his personality was a major factor in his success.
“He’s done just such a great job coming in and being a professional but just being himself at the same time. By that I mean he’s really loose, really funny, mixes well with the guys. He never acted like the normal rookie -- kind of quiet,” Cox said. “He was really involved in everything and loved being around the guys, which we all do. I think that combination of skill and being loose and a happy-go-lucky guy allowed him to perform on the field.”
Now it appears that the 23-year-old is one of the more popular players on the team. He gets asked to sign autographs and take pictures wherever he goes, but that is something that humbles him and something that he appreciates. But it does not sound as if his newfound notoriety and all that success he had in his dream rookie season are going to his head.
“You know what, man? It’s crazy. You win the big one and you wake up the next morning and you want to do it again really, really quickly,” said Tucker, who signed as a rookie free agent last spring. “We don’t have time to be proud. We’re getting ready for 2013. What happened, happened, and it was great. It’s good to be proud of it for the offseason and when you’re done playing, but when you’re still in it, you’re in it to win it.”
One of his main focuses this offseason was to improve his kickoffs and more consistently get touchbacks. He booted touchbacks on 56.5 percent of his kickoffs last season.
He is also striving for perfection on field goals, which has only been done by three kickers over a full season, according to Pro Football Reference. In practice, he picks out smaller targets to kick at to give himself more of a margin for error in games. “I try to aim small, so I miss small,” he said. He often kicks field goals at acute angles to give him a slim window.
Special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Jerry Rosburg says Tucker has a great example to follow in Koch, the 30-year-old who is among the AFC’s best punters. He thinks that relationship won’t allow Tucker to get complacent.
“He’s out here grinding every day with a very determined look and trying to improve on what he did last year, which was a record-setting season,” Rosburg said of Koch. “Justin watches Sam work, and I think he’s learning how Sam has developed over the course of his career, and he understands that while he had a really good year one year, he’s just getting started.”