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CHANGE AFOOT AT KICKER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Steve Hauschka is willing to wait.

The newly minted full-time kicker for the Ravens knows that the organization's many fans embraced and admired Matt Stover. Hauschka is also aware that for the present and immediate future, every one of his kicks will be dissected and reviewed by Stover's loyalists. Hauschka knows what's in store for him as he succeeds Stover, and he will bide his time until fans welcome Hauschka the way they saluted Stover.

"I think it's going to take a few years for people to forget Matt Stover around here just because of what he has done, and I completely understand that," Hauschka said. "It'll probably take a few game-winners for people to accept me, but I'm ready for it."

Hauschka's approach illustrates the mountainous obstacle ahead of the 24-year-old kicker as he attempts to respectfully send the Stover era into the sunset while starting his own with the Ravens.

Stover was the primary kicker in the franchise's 13-year history and is the fourth-most-accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history with an 83.7 percent success rate. He connected on 14 game-winners and still holds the NFL record for most consecutive games with a field goal (38).

Even when the Ravens decided not to re-sign Stover in the offseason so the team could have a younger kicker with a stronger leg and not have to carry an extra one to handle kickoffs, his shadow loomed over the kicking competition between Hauschka and rookie Graham Gano.

Stover's name was frequently circulated among the news media and fans during the preseason, and coach John Harbaugh didn't exactly extinguish the flames as he acknowledged that Stover remained a factor and could be brought back into the fold.

Despite all the speculation, Hauschka insisted that the talk did not bother him.

"I respected what he had done for this town, and we're just trying to put the best team out there on Sundays," he said. "I didn't completely rule out the possibility that the coaches and general manager might think that Matt was our best option. I just tried to show them that I could do this really well, too. I was hoping they would go with me, but I never ruled out that possibility."

If you don't believe Hauschka, listen to Bob Ritter and Jerry Petercuskie. Ritter, the head football coach at Middlebury College, where Hauschka set school records in field goals in a single season (10) and a career (20), said Hauschka is not one to succumb to the pressure.

"There's not going to be a guy who will work harder than Steve and understand his role and the responsibility on him," Ritter said. "I think he really embraces that.

"I think he is eager to have this role, and he has the shoulders, the confidence, the skills and the preparation and desire to take on that pressure. He's a really confident kid who enjoys the role, and I think for a kicker - and certainly at the NFL level - you want somebody who's going to be eager to be in that spot and wants to be that guy. I think the Baltimore fans have someone who is really going to embrace that role."

Petercuskie, the special teams coordinator at North Carolina State, where Hauschka led the Atlantic Coast Conference with an 88.9 percent success rate on field goals in 2007, expressed a similar sentiment about the kicker.

"Steve's very comfortable in his own skin," Petercuskie said. "Matt had a great career, and now it's Hauschka's time. He's very, very comfortable with who he is and what he's doing, and that's what makes him a very successful kid."

In both instances, Hauschka faced considerable odds. He played soccer and lacrosse at Middlebury before beating out five other players for the kicking duties in his sophomore year. At North Carolina State, Hauschka bested two other candidates for the starting job.

Those experiences helped prepare Hauschka for his competition with Gano, who won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top college kicker last year.

"Just like anybody, there's always some self-doubt," Hauschka said. "When I look back and remember that I was at Middlebury just four years ago, it's easy to think, 'How am I doing this?' But you just have to be confident in your form. I think part of it is just trying to stay even-keeled. Sometimes you miss an easy kick and get down on yourself, and other times, you make a long kick and you're really excited. So I think one of the most important aspects of my job is to stay even-keeled."

That quality served him well in the team's third preseason game. Thought to need just a solid performance to lock up the starting role, Hauschka sent a 27-yard field goal wide right on the offense's first possession against the Carolina Panthers. He rebounded, connecting on two extra points and a 38-yarder.

Hauschka, who made six of seven field-goal tries in the preseason to Gano's 1-for-3 success rate, persevered despite having to retool his mechanics after the 2008 preseason, which he spent with the Minnesota Vikings. Rather than standing several yards behind the holder in almost a straight line, like the Vikings' Ryan Longwell, Hauschka has widened his stance. He has changed his swing plane so that he is kicking the football as his foot swings upward, kept his head down through the kick, and reminded himself to take a hop forward with his plant leg on the follow-through.

All the changes are designed to help Hauschka become more consistent, but if Ravens fans are expecting a perfect season from the kicker, they shouldn't hold their breath. Only four kickers since 1991 have converted 100 percent of their field-goal tries, and the last to do so was Mike Vanderjagt with the Indianapolis Colts in 2003.

That's why Harbaugh did his best Monday to temper expectations.

"Let's understand this: He's going to miss some kicks," Harbaugh said. "Now if he goes 100 percent and makes them all, we'll all look like geniuses. But that's not going to happen. He's going to miss a couple kicks, and the thing we're going to be looking for is how does he handle missing a kick, just like how does Joe [Flacco] handle missing a bad pass or Ray [Lewis] handle missing a tackle. We've got to give him that leeway just like any kicker over the years has that kind of leeway, even a veteran."

Hauschka conceded that he might be a little nervous in the hours leading up to the Ravens' season opener Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs at M&T; Bank Stadium. But more than anything, Hauschka is eager to prove himself to his coaches, his teammates and the fans.

"I'm looking forward to seeing all of the hard work I have put into the last six months finally displayed out there on the field in a meaningful game," he said. "With what I've put into this over the last six months, I think I'm ready to go."

Special teams depth chart

P: 4 Koch

K: 6 Hauschka

H: 4 Koch

LS: 70 Katula

KR: 30 Carr, 21 Webb

PR: 30 Carr, 21 Webb

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