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Camp Countdown: Kicking game

Posted Jul 26, 2009

Jansen
Long snapper J.J. Jansen came aboard in a trade with the Packers. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)


CHARLOTTE -- John Kasay drilling one field goal after another in nearly robotic repetition. Jason Baker punting high into the early summer sky. Rhys Lloyd slamming dozens of footballs from sailing over two lanes of traffic and into an apartment complex on the other side of Cedar Street.

These were the sights of Carolina's kicking specialists at organized team activities, just as they were every practice, Wednesday through Friday, throughout the previous season.

Kasay is the only placekicker the Panthers have ever had. Baker has been the team's punter through the last four seasons. Lloyd merely had more touchbacks last season than anyone else in a single campaign since the "K-ball" was introduced 10 years ago.

Each is also the only one at his position heading into training camp. Summertime intrigue rests not at their feet, but in the hands of those who snap the football in their direction.

Jason Kyle, the Panthers' long snapper of the previous eight seasons, is now elsewhere in the NFC South, having moved on to the New Orleans Saints -- and creating a coveted opening in Carolina.

Long snapping jobs don't open too frequently around the league, and success at the gig often leads to a lengthy career. Kyle, for instance, already had six seasons of experience before joining the Panthers in 2001 and is in his 15th season. Half of the league's long snappers at the end of the 2008 campaign were 30 years of age or older, and the position's average age was 29 years, four and a half months, figures that well exceed the league average at other positions.

Enter J.J. Jansen and Nick Sundberg. Neither has snapped before in an NFL game, but both are well-trained in the discipline at Notre Dame and California, respectively -- with Jansen earning the job in Green Bay last summer before tearing his lateral collateral ligament in the final moments of Green Bay's 2008 preseason finale.

"That was frustrating, to be so close," Jansen said, "but it's given me a lot of drive to come back and do it again.

Both Jansen and Sundberg know that this shot in Carolina might be their best shot to claim a job that, with good performance, could offer steady, lucrative employment for a decade or more.

Sundberg

Rookie long snapper Nick Sundberg. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON / PANTHERS.COM)


"Everyone in the league is very good, so certainly teams don't want to change success," Jansen said. "Every opportunity you have to treat as your last and know that the most important part is being the best snapper that you can be and hopefully it all works out."

Theirs is a unique competition, in that the relative scarcity of players in their position group means they have to work together while dueling for one job. The trick, says Jansen, is not to think about the other guy in the mix.

"It's a little different being a long snapper because you're not really competing against a person; there's not a man across the line you're trying to beat -- you're just trying to be the best you can be," he said. "Certainly we're all aware that we're in a competition, but I don't that really changes how we would perform, whether it be now with three guys here and in the season when there's just one of us; you're competing with yourself, just like all times."

But the stakes will be high -- and for whoever wins the jon, even higher when the regular season begins.