Illini kicker has leg up in NFL bid

Illini kicker has leg up in NFL bid

   To Illinois football fans, Peter Elezovic is an obscure name from the past, the answer to a trivia question.

   As a junior at Michigan in 1992, he kicked a 39-yard field goal with 16 seconds left that tied Illinois in Ann Arbor and sent the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl.

   A year later, he graduated with a degree in sociology and began chasing the dream of becoming an NFL kicker. So far, it''s still a dream.

   After playing in Spain and the Arena Football League, Elezovic has bounced around to tryouts and training camps from Washington, D.C., to Phoenix.

   In between, the 28-year-old has worked construction, painted houses for relatives and waited tables while searching anywhere for a chance to kick. There are many others like him.

   "With us kickers, that''s how it goes sometimes," Elezovic said. "I work out with Eddie Murray and he used to tell me Nick Lowery got cut seven times. It''s tough because there are 31 teams now and probably only two or three jobs open. Once you get in, it''s difficult to get you out."

   For men who make their living with their legs, the toughest part is getting a foot in the NFL''s door.

   Elezovic was speaking by phone last month from NFL Europe training camp in Orlando, Fla. The Washington Redskins signed him this offseason and allocated him to the Scottish Claymores, who sent him to the Barcelona Dragons.

   He''ll spend the summer working for another shot with the Redskins, who cut him during their 1997 training camp. Elezovic also will compile film of live-action kicking for other teams'' scouts.

   "What I''m chasing is the right coach to give me the right opportunity," Elezovic said. "There''s so many guys who want that shot."

   Illinois senior Neil Rackers is hoping to get his chance this fall. Rackers, who has a chance of being drafted by an NFL team next weekend, has been going through pre-draft camps and has been impressive with his field goals and kickoffs.

   Florida State''s Sebastion Janikowski, whose reputation for getting in trouble is as big as his powerful left leg, has stirred up talk of a kicker being drafted in the first round for the first time since 1978.

   If Rackers is not drafted, he surely will be invited to some team''s training camp. And he thinks he''s in Janikowski''s class.

   "The coaches from Chicago said he doesn''t have much on me," Rackers said. "He''s just had two seasons of getting field goal attempts. I thanked Kurt (Kittner) for getting stalled some this year."

Making a name

   Not long after the Illini celebrated their Micronpc.com Bowl victory, Rackers went to work.

   Rackers, who hit 20 of 26 field goals last season, returned from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 1, signed with agent Rob Roche of RSR Sports Management in Madison, N.J., and had a schedule planned by Jan. 5.

   Rackers visited Athlete''s Edge in New Jersey to work with balance coach David Weck. He worked on stability with his plant leg on a "Bosou ball." Rackers also received advice from former Green Bay Packers punter Bill Renner at Fourth Down Sports in February.

   "It makes it nicer when your client is working hard," Roche said.

   Roche made a Rackers highlight tape that began with broadcasters Verne Lundquist and Sam Wyche raving about Rackers. It included all of his kickoffs, field goals and extra-point kicks  they also squeezed in his touchdown catch against Iowa  and was shipped to every NFL team.

   At Illinois'' "NFL Day" on March 6, Rackers performed for special teams coaches from Chicago, Jacksonville and Cincinnati and a scout from New Orleans. He also kicked in the bubble for Philadelphia, Green Bay and Indianapolis.

   Rackers said he was anxious  no Steve Fitts to soothe his nerves  but kicked well with NFL K-balls provided by Bears special teams coach Keith Armstrong.

   "He''s got pretty good form and pretty good technique," said Armstrong, whose team has seen Rackers work out twice. "He has a strong leg. Just from watching game film, he''s right behind Janikowski on kickoffs. He kicked K balls fresh out of the bag and was putting them 5 yards deep (in the end zone)."

   For the tryouts, Roche set up a series of kicks from various distances and hashmarks. On March 6, Rackers was 14 for 16 on field goals, including a 4-for-4 effort from 50 yards or longer. He sent three of six kickoffs into the end zone and all six had a hang time around 4 seconds.

   In a March 20 workout, Rackers made all nine field goals attempts  four from 50 yards or longer  knocked four kickoffs into the end zone and dropped the other six inside the 5-yard line.

   "Moving back to the 30-yard line doesn''t make a difference," Rackers said. "The pro balls are a little more stiff. But I can still blow it out of the end zone."

   Rackers was not among four kickers invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in late February. But Illinois coach Ron Turner said Rackers'' leg strength will pay off.

   "I think he''s got a great chance," Turner said. "I''ve had some scouts say he was better than any kicker at Indy. I think he''s got an advantage because he''s a great kickoff guy and can serve as a team''s backup punter."

   Between workouts, Rackers is finishing up his degree in speech communication. He''s got three hours of Speech Comm. 254  freedom of speech  before graduation.

   By then, the draft will be history and Rackers will be preparing for summer minicamps and fall training camps. That''s when the hard part really begins.

Fierce competition

   Since 1966, only four kickers have been drafted in the first round. It''s been even more rare since the draft dropped to seven rounds.

   There were three kickers taken last year  Martin Gramatica, Jeff Hall and Kris Brown  none in 1998 and only Green Bay''s Brett Conway in 1997. With tight salary cap restrictions, NFL teams hate to waste even a late-round pick that could be the next Terrell Davis.

   After all, there''s only one true kicker in the Hall of Fame.

   "I don''t understand why anybody drafts a kicker," Dallas Cowboys kicking coach Steve Hoffman said. "Last year Tampa took the Gramatica kid and he had a good year, but he can''t reach the end zone with his kickoffs.

   "You''re giving up a starting linebacker or a running back. There''s kickers all over the place. You just have to find them and have the guts to give them a chance."

   Hoffman, one of two men with the title "kicking coach" in the league, has developed kickers like Lin Elliott and Richie Cunningham. He''s the reason Cowboys owner Jerry Jones only pays minimum wage for kickers.

   Every few years, Hoffman must find and train another young kicker. He started last season with Cunningham before pulling Murray out of retirement to finish the season.

   "We''re trying to find a young kicker and then four or five veterans will come in August," Hoffman said. "I talked to Eddie (last week). He''s our reliever if we can''t find a young guy."

   Hoffman, who''s not a Janikowski fan, is looking for a strong leg, good technique and mental toughness, which he gauges with a "gut feeling." He has to guess which kicker will make the game-winner in Green Bay in late December.

   The problem for rookie kickers is they get little work in training camp and preseason games. Coaches and personnel bosses have little to go on, while they''ve seen old-timers like Murray, Morten Anderson or Gary Anderson kick under pressure.

   On opening day last season, the 30 starting NFL kickers averaged 13.5 years of experience, and their average age was 29. When Chicago''s Jeff Jaeger went down to injury, the Bears went to Chris Boniol, Brian Gowins and Jaret Holmes.

   At one point, Canadian Football League cult hero Bjorn Nittmo received a tryout.

   "We had everybody and their mother," Armstrong said. "We were going through retreads and digging up old names."

   Rookies must understand how much competition they face.

   "I have 140 videotapes so far, and I''ll be up around 175-200 by the end of the spring," Hoffman said. "And these guys aren''t out of the woodwork. There are guys coming out of college thinking ''I should make it because I''m an All- American.''

   "Well now he''s competing with guys who were All-Americans the past six years. The truth is, it''s harder than being a U.S. congressman."

Long haul

   Danny Kight would second that statement. He tried out with the Cowboys three years ago, and his bicycle still is sitting in Hoffman''s office.

   Like Elezovic, Kight will spend his summer in Europe working on field goal accuracy. Everyone in the NFL already knows about his leg.

   While most teams carry a kicker and punter, the Indianapolis Colts made Kight the only kickoff specialist in the league last season.

   "A guy like Danny is able to keep in there and keep his opportunities because of his big leg," Elezovic said. "He was already known as a strong-legged guy."

   An All-American soccer player at Division II Augusta (Ga.) State, Kight played semi-pro football in 1995, and was cut by San Diego in 1996 and Hoffman''s Cowboys in 1997.

   Over the next two years, Washington and Tampa Bay signed and released Kight. Rookie Phil Dawson beat him for the Cleveland job last fall and Kight eventually latched onto the Colts.

   "The NFL is not very loyal," Kight said. "It''s what have you done for me lately. (Indianapolis) is one of those teams that won''t spend much money on a kicker."

   The 28-year-old has 12 games of NFL experience, but has yet to attempt a field goal or extra-point kick. He''ll have to unseat Mike Vanderjagt, who led the NFL in scoring last season.

   Elezovic''s journey began in Spain and landed him a job with the Albany Firebirds. He was the Arena Football League''s top kicker in 1996, then went to camp with the Redskins in ''97 and got cut.

   Tampa Bay picked Michael Husted over Elezovic in 1998 and he returned to arena ball. He thought he had a chance with Tampa in 1999, but the Buccaneers drafted Gramatica in the third round.

   Since then there was a stint with Minnesota and failed tryouts with Carolina and Oakland. Three rookie kickers started in 1999, but there''s usually a longer journey.

   "Going into last year with the Bucs, I told myself that was the last year," Elezovic said. "But it''s hard to say no when somebody calls you. It''s difficult when there''s that possibility and you''ve been chasing that dream."

Tough job

   Once they make it, most kickers still have the job security of a New York Yankees manager.

   "Guys get fired from that position all the time, right in the middle of the season," Turner said. "Miss two field goals, and they''re gone. Opportunities are there."

   Kight and Elezovic hope to hang around long enough to get theirs. Rackers has talked to longtime New York Jets kicker Pat Leahy about the business.

   "You don''t like to talk about the negatives of it," Rackers said. "There''s a big turnover in kickers. I''m just looking at being successful."

   After strong tryouts, Rackers has a shot in the draft, Roche said. Rackers said Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago are the most interested  the Falcons'' Anderson turns 41 next season, and the Eagles and Bears are searching.

   Turner likes Rackers'' mentality and Armstrong likes his toughness. Roche likes his chances. Kight''s got some advice.

   "Be willing to accept criticism and have a short memory," he said. "There''s always somebody waiting to take your position. Every kick made in practice is a crucial kick. Those could keep you there."

GETTING THEIR KICKS

   Here''s a look at the top 10 kicking prospects, listed in alphabetical order, in this year''s NFL Draft.

Name, School, FG-FGA, PAT, Comment

   Matthew Burdick, Wake Forest, 16-23, 27-27, Accurate from short range but 3 for 8 from 40 yards or longer

   Paul Edinger, Michigan State, 21-26, 40-41, Consistent and has hit a 55-yarder

   Shayne Graham, Virginia Tech, 17-22, 56-57, Handles pressure well, but strength is a questionable

   Sebastian Janikowski, Florida State, 23-30, 47-47, Draft darling has big leg, bigger penchant for partying

   Sims Lenhardt, Duke, 14-18, 17-17, Former Lou Groza finalist solid from long range

   Vitaly Pisetsky, Wisconsin, 16-20, 46-48, Solid season after spending two years as kickoff specialist

   Neil Rackers, Illinois, 20-26, 44-44, Leg strength compares favorably with Janikowski

   Jason Strasser, Bowling Green, 13-16, 27-28, Accurate from close range and good on kickoffs

   Nate Trout, Syracuse, 15-19, 31-32, Solid up to 40 yards, but dome kicker had no field goals over 50

   Nathan Villegas, Oregon, 13-18, 24-25, Knee injury limited ''98 Groza finalist to six games

CAUGHT IN THE DRAFT

   What: 65th NFL Draft

   Where: Madison Square Garden, New York

   When: April 15-16

   Illini outlook: Linebacker Danny Clark is probably the best bet to be drafted. ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. projects Clark as an early fourth-round pick. Kicker Neil Rackers is ranked among the nation''s best and could have a shot in the late rounds. Defensive end Rameel Connor worked out at the scouting combine and could get the call late.

   Where to watch: On Saturday, ESPN will televise the draft from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. then switch to ESPN2 until the completion of the third round. On Sunday, ESPN will broadcast the draft from 10 a.m. to noon then switch to ESPN2 until the draft''s completion. There will also be draft tracker updates at www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

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