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Rookie punter trying to seize his chance with Ravens

Thinking ahead isn't an option for an undrafted free agent in training camp, especially one competing with a veteran for a team's sole punting job.

Ravens undrafted rookie punter Richie Leone began working toward an NFL punting job in college.

He kicked and played quarterback at Roswell High in Georgia, and while at the University of Houston began a pro-style training regimen under a former NFL special teams coach.

So if he can't unseat incumbent punter Sam Koch during the preseason, Leone will have an even more refined left foot to take elsewhere in search of an NFL role.

"Honestly, the only thing that I'm trying to do is make each day good, then when it comes to game time, just make it happen and we'll see where we are at the end of the preseason," Leone said. "That's how you've got to do it. You just need an opportunity and to make the most if it. That's what I'm trying to do here."

Tony Levine was Houston's special teams coordinator until he became the head coach three years ago. While a coordinator in the summer of 2009, he underwent a national search for a punter.

Leone handled kickoffs, field goals and punts for Roswell, in addition to playing quarterback, but distinguished himself as a punter at the 100-player recruiting cattlecall in Houston that ended Levine's search.

"He was a skinny, 6-foot-2, 195-pound senior-to-be, and demonstrated to me he was the best high school punter, technically, I had ever seen going into their senior year," Levine said.

He offered Leone a scholarship the following day, and Leone accepted a week later. But his recruitment was far from over.

Leone put 20 pounds onto his athletic frame and was a first-team All-State punter during his senior year. Nearby Southeastern Conference schools took notice, and Levine said several offered Leone a scholarship despite his commitment to Houston.

"That speaks to the kind of young man he is, character-wise, that he remained committed," Levine said.

Leone was the kickoff specialist and punter for Houston as a true freshman, and as a sophomore he earned the first of his three nominations as a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation's best punter.

That's when Levine, a former special teams coach for the Carolina Panthers, used his NFL experience to begin preparing Leone for one of his own.

"I excelled at that in my junior and senior year, and I was built more like a punter, and had more potential to be a punter," Leone said. "I kind of fell in love with that, and the process" of punting.

Leone's teammates elected him captain as a senior, and his face was on posters and billboards promoting the 2013 season around the Houston area. Just three of his 73 punts went for touchbacks during his senior year, when he was voted a second-team FWAA All-American and was third in the country with a 41.4 net yards per punt rating.

Levine's contacts in the NFL, including Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, told him Leone "was going to have an opportunity to go compete somewhere."

The Ravens signed him quickly after the draft, and the young punter joined a detail-oriented special teams unit.

"We focus so much on footwork, ball drops, just being able to do everything and focus precisely on the details will help him as a punter," Koch said. "Coming out of college, it's huge. Being able to focus in on one punt, one kick, really helps out a lot at his age."

Added Leone, "We work on the smallest, littlest details because those are the most important."

The culmination of those details came Friday, when the team got its first look at Leone in a full-team special teams scenario.

"Richie made a step forward [Friday] because he was punting out there with a punt team, with a rush, and his tempo and his comfort level was much higher," Rosburg said Friday. "He was much better today, and we're encouraged by that."

The Ravens haven't had a second punter in camp since 2007, when Brendan Carney was signed out of Syracuse but cut after training camp, leaving Koch as the lone punter.

Koch signed a five-year, $12.5 million contract extension in February 2011, and since then has consistently averaged between 46 and 47 yards per punt, with his net average topping out at 40.8 yards in 2012. After a 2013 season in which he punted a career-high 90 times but was 22nd in the league with a net of 38.9 yards per kick, there was some speculation Koch could have been a salary cap casualty.

He appears to have been spared, though Koch's $2.2 million base salary is on the high end for a punter. Coach John Harbaugh said in April that the punting job was Koch's, but Koch sees himself in a real competition with Leone.

"Any time you bring somebody in, I look at is as competition," Koch said. "He's a great guy and I want to help him, but … I'm trying to do the best that I can because I want my job. We're competing and we're having a lot of fun with it, but in the end, I'm not going to hold a grudge against him because he's trying to take my job. It's the nature of the business, and we're just trying to have fun with it, and may the best man win."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonmeoli

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