FOXBOROUGH -- Last week, rookie Stephen Gostkowski was told he'd take all the kicks in the Patriots' second exhibition game. This week, the news was even better -- he'll be taking all the kicks, period.
Gostkowski is now the lone placekicker on the team after the Patriots released seven-year veteran Martin Gramatica yesterday. Gostkowski has big cleats to fill, following Adam Vinatieri, who was known for his clutch kicks over the last 10 years.
The 22-year-old Gostkowski, a fourth-round draft choice (118th overall), is 4 for 4 on field goal attempts in two exhibition games, hitting two from 37 yards, as well as from 34 and 33 yards. He's shown a strong leg on kickoffs as well.
Gostkowski, who became serious about kicking entering his junior year at the University of Memphis, said he learned from watching Gramatica.
``He's a great guy, a great kicker," Gostkowski said before Gramatica's release. ``It's fun to watch someone who's been there, done that, and been to a Pro Bowl."
By releasing Gramatica now, the Patriots give him a chance to hook on with another club.
``I think he's been very competitive," coach Bill Belichick said. ``He's accurate. He handles the elements well. He's kicked in wind; I think that's a strength for him. He gets the ball off quickly. I've been around kickers for a long time and I think he's a very competitive kicker in the National Football League at this point."
Gramatica, who was attempting to return to the NFL after missing the 2005 season, converted both of his field goal attempts in the exhibition opener in Atlanta -- from 26 and 30 yards. But he watched last Saturday's 30-3 victory over the Cardinals. As an added wrinkle, coaches told Gostkowski he'd be the lone kicker early last week as a test for how he'd handle the pressure leading up to the game.
Gostkowski said last week turned out to be easier than the days leading up to the team's exhibition opener.
``I was more nervous my first NFL game, definitely," he said. ``It was definitely fun, I felt comfortable out there. Practicing every day here, you're supposed to be comfortable on your own field."
Punter Josh Miller, who is also the holder for field goals and extra points, described Gostkowski as having a cannon for a leg, comparing him to a young baseball pitcher who throws 101 miles per hour. Ironically, Gostkowski preferred pitching more than kicking early on at Memphis, and probably would have given up kicking if he hadn't received a football scholarship as a freshman walk-on. Gostkowski arrived at Memphis with a partial baseball scholarship but walked on to the football team because it was a chance for a full scholarship. He wasn't enthused about kicking after struggling his senior year of high school.
``I wasn't sure if I wanted to concentrate more on that or more on baseball," he said. ``And just being the field goal kicker, you're kind of the butt of all the jokes."
But the kicker Memphis projected would take its field goals in 2002 suffered a slight groin pull, opening the door for the athletic Gostkowski, who was initially expected to just handle kickoffs. While adjusting to kicking off the ground instead of a tee as he did in high school, Gostkowski made 9 of 14 field goal attempts that year, including a 50-yarder in the season opener against Murray State. He ended up 70 for 92 on field goals over his four-year career, going 42 for 49 his final two seasons.
Memphis coach Tommy West, who called Gostkowski ``Gotti" because he couldn't pronounce his last name, said the conditions weren't always ideal.
``Extremely difficult, the wind swirls inside the Liberty Bowl, and there was always wind," said West, noting that Gostkowski improved each year. ``It's a hard place to kick in."
Gillette Stadium, of course, is one of the hardest places to kick in the NFL. No matter the venue, Gostkowski said his approach doesn't waver. He wasn't aware that Patriots fans cheered him when he came onto the field in last Saturday night's game.
``Everything goes silent when I'm out there, I try to zone in and make the kick," he said. ``All I'm worried about is when I get a chance to put points on the board, I help the team win. I just try to concentrate on every kick. If you miss one, you have to go to the next. If you make one, you can't go, `Wow, I made that kick,' and don't worry about the next one. Let it go, let everything go, and go to the next one."
Gostkowski called last Saturday's game a good experience because ``you have to get used to making more than one kick in a game." He also had seven kickoffs, two of which reached the end zone. Gostkowski said a good kickoff is when the return team doesn't advance it past the 30-yard line, and the Cardinals returned only two of his kickoffs past that marker.
``It's all about the coverage, the placement, and the height," he said. ``I felt like I've been getting decent height, but feel like I can get more distance. I always think I can get better. You can't be content."
When Gostkowski learned the Patriots would be seeking a new kicker after Vinatieri signed as a free agent with the Colts this offseason, he text-messaged his cousin, who lives in Boston. The two considered what it would be like for Gostkowski to replace Vinatieri.
Now Gostkowski will experience just that. He's enjoying his time in New England.
``I like how crazy the fans are about their sports, along with being by a big city," he said. ``I haven't been through a winter yet and it's been a while since I've seen a lot of snow. But I think it will be nice."