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Kicker competition heats up at Arizona Cardinals camp

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Last year at training camp, the Cardinals signed free agent kicker Dan Carpenter to compete for a roster spot with incumbent Jay Feely.

One practice and a blocked field goal in a preseason game later, Carpenter was back on the street while Feely continued preparing for a season that would see him connect on 30 of 36 field goal attempts and all 37 of his PATs.

The 127 points were the most Feely has scored as a Cardinal and the third-most he’s scored in his 13-year career. Yet, more than one week into the team’s 2014 camp, Feely is again battling for his job, this time with undrafted rookie Chandler Catanzaro.

“I think most guys are like that, to be honest with you,” Feely, 38, said of having to continually fight for his job. “Most of the guys on that field are battling for their job every day. You deal with the pressure and you understand you have to perform.

“That’s the reality of being a professional athlete.”

True, but probably even more so for kickers. It’s one of the most fickle positions on the field, and it is one which coaches always seem to want to upgrade.

Enter the 23-year-old Catanzaro, who kicked for Clemson but came into the NFL with the most random of question marks for a kicker: Can he handle kickoff duties?

Punter Bradley Pinion handled kickoffs for Clemson, leaving Catanzaro with just five attempts in 2013, in which he averaged 60.80 yards and tallied one touchback. Though he left as the school’s all-time leading scorer and set records for PATs made, field goals of 40-plus yards and consecutive field goals made — with 20 between 2011 and 2012 — he’s had to prove to the Cardinals he can be a complete kicker.

“It gave me an edge in the offseason,” he said of the questions surrounding his skills having nothing to do with his ability to make field goals. “In the offseason, I kind of used that as a chip on my shoulder and got a lot better at them, and I’m hitting them really good. I’m hitting them like I want them, so I’m excited to do that in the preseason games coming up. We’ll see where it goes from there.”

Where it could go is a job with the Arizona Cardinals. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the competition between Feely and Catanzaro has “been outstanding,” adding it will come down to the wire with regards to which of the two earns the job.

“It’s going to all depend on games,” he said. “How Chandler handles games and kicks off. I know what Jay does; he’s got a history. So it’s just a matter of how Chandler handles himself on game day.”

Arians added he’s been impressed with how Catanzaro has adapted to handling kickoffs, and even noted how the ball seems to make a different kind of sound when it comes off his foot. It’s a good sound, by the way, not unlike what you hear when a batter makes solid contact with a baseball.

If Catanzaro is to win the job, it will likely have little to do with finances. Feely signed a one-year deal worth $1.02 million in March, and while that’s more than the rookie would make, it’s certainly not enough to warrant a downgrade at the position.

So far in camp, the battle appears to be fairly even. Both outlasted Danny Hrapmann, the third kicker who came into camp but was released Friday. Cantazaro and Feely have seemingly alternated who kicks which day, and while each has had his share of misses, both have, for the most part, been splitting the uprights with regularity.

“Everybody’s got a little different style,” Cardinals punter and holder Dave Zastudil said. “Jay’s been in this league a long time and I’ve been with him a long time, so him and I got our rhythm kind of down. Chandler’s trying to probably adjust to the speed of the game: It’s a little different in college than the NFL. But he’s coming along.

“Both guys are making good contact with the ball, and they’re both really great to work with.”

The competition between the kickers highlights one of the true oddities in training camp. While most players are indeed fighting for jobs, there’s generally more than one person who handles it on the roster, meaning it’s not a “you or me” proposition. That’s not so with kickers, meaning the relationship between the two could suffer a bit.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Jay. We have a good relationship,” Catanzaro said. “I think both of us realize it’s really a competition with ourselves, trying to be the best we can individually be — and from there see what happens. Competition always helps growth. It’s a good competition.”

And if the rookie looks to the veteran for guidance, he can.

“I don’t know how much coaching I necessarily do,” Feely said. “I mean, if he asks me a question, I’m going to help him and answer him, but at the same time, I want to win the job.”

A year ago, Feely was able to ward off the challenger and do exactly that. But another training camp has brought another battle, and so far it appears he and Catanzaro are really going toe-to-toe.