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Work ethic gives Huerta a leg up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even when Carlos Huerta is relaxed, he looks and sounds restless.

Huerta said he is feeling good about his performance as the Baltimore Stallions' kicker. When you've made 10 straight field goals and have played an important role in both of your team's victories, congratulations are in order.

But Huerta will not stand still long enough to receive a pat on the back. At practice, when he's not kicking long field goals routinely, Huerta, 5 feet 7, 185 pounds, is a bundle of nervous energy, running sprints, jogging laps, stretching, kicking on the side, never sitting.

"I could come out here, kick nine footballs and sit for the rest of practice, but I feel I won't do as good a job of kicking if I'm not in the shape I should be in," Huerta said. "I simulate game situations every day in practice. I try to stay active throughout practice. It definitely translates into game-day performances."

Has it ever. When Baltimore selected Huerta three months ago as the 12th pick in the first round of the Las Vegas dispersal draft, the Stallions figured they were improving a key position, although that meant replacing Donald Igwebuike, a capable place-kicker who was Baltimore's most popular player in 1994.

Huerta has given the Stallions a solid, early return on their $25,000 investment. Since missing two of four field-goal attempts in a season-opening loss at British Columbia, he has been perfect, hitting nine straight in back-to-back victories against the San Antonio Texans. He had four field goals last week, including a late 48-yarder that sealed the Stallions' 28-23 victory. He also has made all 11 conversions and leads the Canadian Football League in scoring with 44 points.

"We got him to upgrade our kicking, and we're getting exactly what we thought we'd get," said Baltimore coach Don Matthews. "He was brought here because he's a high-percentage, long-range field-goal kicker. Carlos is always hard on himself, always trying to improve. Hopefully, he won't wear his leg out."

Huerta is much calmer than he was seven weeks ago, when he reported to training camp with a deep bruise on the thigh of his kicking leg -- an injury he received in a pickup soccer game a month earlier. Then, he fueled his frustration with what he considered subpar kicking in the early days of practice.

The way Huerta saw it, this was no way to treat a new beginning.

"I was embarrassed, because I came in with an injury, with all of these accolades and high expectations, then I went out there and kicked like a high school kid," said Huerta, who was second in the CFL in field-goal accuracy (82.6 percent) last year with the Posse. "I took that as a knock on the chin, because I take pride in what I do."

Matthews said he was never worried. "We examined him before camp and figured he'd be fine. We thought he was kicking well enough in practice. It [the injury] was never a concern."

Huerta's self-doubt has gradually faded, although he opened the preseason by missing three of six field goals against the Ottawa Rough Riders, which prompted cheers of "Iggy" from the Memorial Stadium crowd. Huerta then went 3-for-3 against the Birmingham Barracudas in the final exhibition, and has made 11 of 13 regular-season field-goal attempts.

Huerta's improvement can be traced to the development of his kicking team, rookie long snapper Robert Davis and rookie quarterback Dan Crowley, the team's holder. The three have worked together exclusively for a month.

"Carlos gives me great feedback, which makes me a better holder, something I hadn't done since high school," said Crowley, who deftly scooped up a low snap on one of Huerta's field goals last week in San Antonio. "He's just booming the ball right now. His work ethic is super. He's a game kicker, a money kicker."

"They say football is a game of inches. Kicking is a game of millimeters," Huerta said. "One little change in the way Danny holds the ball can translate into feet when you're kicking from 45 yards out. It's a tedious mixture of art form and athletic ability."

Huerta's ability has been obvious since he joined the University of Miami as a walk-on in 1987, then walked away as an All-American with 12 school scoring records and three national championship rings. From there, he had unsuccessful NFL tryouts in San Diego in 1992 and Houston in 1993, losing battles with veterans John Carney and Al Del Greco, respectively.

At 26, does Huerta have NFL skills? "I know I do," he said.

Last year, he wound up in the CFL with Las Vegas, an ill-fated expansion experiment. But Huerta made the best of his chances, connecting on all 37 conversions while going 38-for-46 on field-goal attempts, including eight of 50 yards or longer.

This year, he is enjoying his rebirth with a CFL title contender.

"In Vegas, the fans were unmotivated, and I remember playing here last year in front of great fans," he said. "As a player, that's what you enjoy. You work all week to show off on the weekend, to show what you have on game day. I want to put on a show as a kicker. I want fans to go home thinking, 'That guy was unbelievable.' "

NOTES: Baltimore linebacker Tracy Gravely, who recorded a team-record 13 tackles in last week's victory in San Antonio, has been named CFL Defensive Player of the Week.

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