Rookie kicker Justin Tucker keeps a cool approach

 Justin Tucker

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker celebrates a 56-yard field goal against the Philadelphia Eagles. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / September 16, 2012)

Justin Tucker has eased most of the concerns about former Ravens placekicker Billy Cundiff.

If Cundiff was still with the Ravens, that would be the main topic with New England coming to town and Cundiff having missed that 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the AFC championship game last season.

The talk may have been a distraction and a head game for Cundiff, but not now. At the end of training camp, Cundiff lost his battle with Tucker, a rookie out of the University of Texas.

Tucker isn't looking backward, but forward.

"I try to stay relatively balanced," said Tucker, when asked about the attention of the fierce competition in training camp. "I try not to pay attention to all the publicity. The minute you do that is when you start to slip up. You hear horror stories about other people around professional sports. Soon as you let it get to you, you start slipping up. I want to stay hungry and focused."

There were probably some skeptics still out there waiting for Tucker to miss for an "I told you so" moment, which would have had Cundiff supporters grumbling. But Tucker has been superb. He has converted all six of his field goal attempts including three of three between 40 and 49 yards, and two over 50.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, Tucker had field goals of 56, 51 and 48 yards. The 56-yarder tied a Ravens record set by Wade Richey in 2003.

"Justin was great. He did a great job, but next week is a new week, so we will hold his feet to the fire, continue to do that," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "The thing I like about 'Tuck' is he is workman-like. He really pays attention to detail, technique. It's never too big for him, so he's off to a good start. In this league, there are always challenges."

Tucker had one of the toughest versus Cundiff, a former Pro Bowl player. Ravens team officials won't admit it, but Tucker basically was brought in to push Cundiff after the miss in New England.

But once they saw Tucker's leg strength, they had to reconsider. They also saw Tucker's swagger. He has the competitiveness of Ray Lewis.

"My dad [Paul] is a cardiologist and my mom [Michelle] is a photographer," said Tucker, a native of Austin, Texas. "Maybe I get the technical side of things from my dad and the creativeness from my mother."

Tucker could become a new rock star in Baltimore. He is good looking and single. He was a fine arts major at the University of Texas and is extremely social.

He likes music [Mumford & Sons, Kings of Leon) and does great impersonations even though he prefers to keep them in the locker room. If he is consistent and can convert a few game winners, he could become as popular as former Ravens kicker Matt Stover.

Tucker is just as humble.

Like Stover, he is a Christian. Like Stover, he gives thanks to God before and after field goals.

"I do the crossing because I want to give thanks for the opportunity," Tucker said. "Not many people get to do what we get to do, and it really is a blessing. I give a little point to the heavens and a little shout to the big man upstairs for the opportunity."

His faith in God and confidence in himself will not waver.

"I'm not trying to say I'm perfect or a role model by any means," said Tucker, "but if somebody takes something positive from what I've done on or off the field, that's great. People always ask me if I get nervous before a kick and really, I try to handle every kick the same way regardless if it is an extra point or potential game winning situation."

Tucker is cool.

Most rookies scream, yell, or have parties immediately after making an NFL roster. Tucker went to Chipotle. He ate a burrito and drank a soda by himself.

"My entire career was on the line each of those preseason games so the season opener was no different for me," he said. "I always try to stay calm."

Stover has been over to watch the Ravens practice several times and he has had lunch with the specialists including Tucker and punter Sam Koch.

Stover has given Tucker some pointers and he likes what he sees in the rookie.

"I think he is the real deal," said Stover. "He is doing well early, but there is still a lot of kicking to be done. He needs to stay humble, stay fresh, stay healthy and take it one kick at a time."

Stover knows it's a long season. For Tucker, he has been kicking consistently without a break since the spring of his junior season. Fatigue sets in around November and December, and that makes a difference in January when the playoffs roll around.

Just ask Cundiff.

No one around here is talking about him anymore.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

 
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