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Graham Gano enjoying kickers’ most prized commodity: confidence

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Perfect in the preseason, Graham Gano is feeling it. The young Washington Redskins place kicker has never been more confident. Gano believes he’s ready to reach new heights.

“I feel like I can be here for a long time,” Gano said recently.

To make that happen, now that the games matter, he’ll have to bury the past. Gano must maintain the kicking accuracy he displayed while facing relatively little pressure. Starting Sunday against the New York Giants at FedEx Field, Gano has to handle the heat better than he did last season.

Beginning his second full season, Gano, 24, sounds different. He seems to have learned from his difficulties in 2010, when he missed 11 of 35 field goal attempts. He reported to training camp determined to remain relaxed despite management’s desire for a kicking competition.

Worrying about losing his job definitely wouldn’t have helped, “so even with the competition, I didn’t particularly get caught up in what was going on. I just thought, ‘Focus on yourself. Focus on succeeding.’ I believed I could get better.”

Something seemed to click.

In a four-game test, Gano received the highest marks possible, making all 10 of his field goal attempts and all eight of his point-after attempts. He had two field goals of at least 45 yards, a long of 48 and made three field goals in each of three games.

Long snapper Nick Sundberg, also back for his second season with Washington, and new punter and holder Sav Rocca are becoming a great trio, Gano said, “and a lot of people are overlooking that. They’re making it real easy for me.”

With the strong-legged Gano on the team, the Redskins figured they would benefit from the new kickoff rules, and that was the case. Washington’s opponents had 16 touchbacks on Gano’s 23 kickoffs.

No doubt, it was a big-time showing, prompting special teams coordinator Danny Smith to praise Gano, who found a good groove mentally and stayed there. In Gano’s first 20 games with the Redskins, he displayed leg strength and solid mechanics.

But could Gano thrive in the tightrope world of NFL place kickers?

Regardless of distance, there’s no such thing as an “easy kick,” coaches tell you. Sure, extra points are routine — for fans. Even on kickoffs, so many things could go wrong from a kick and coverage standpoint, special teams coaches rarely exhale.

Smith is second to none, especially in his commitment to detail, and he’s raising Gano. Smith spends much of his time counseling Gano about preparing to have success, and Gano is “showing him I’m learning. I think he sees that.”

Still, Gano was not tested. The expected competition failed to materialize because Shayne Graham flopped at the start.

The Redskins signed Graham, an 11-year veteran, to push Gano. During his long run with Cincinnati, Graham was once one of the league’s best kickers, so it seemed Washington brought in a good candidate.

In the preseason opener against Pittsburgh, Graham missed his two attempts. The Redskins had seen enough, releasing him two days later.

Up next: Clint Stitser.

He apparently didn’t inspire much confidence while missing during practice and pregame warmups. Stitser’s departure left Gano alone again.

Problem is, there just isn’t a lot of kicking talent out there. Coaches often bemoan the lack of NFL-ready kickers coming out of college.

That’s why familiar names are on teams’ lists each season when kicking tryouts occur, usually after someone misses a late attempt in a loss or performs poorly for a stretch. Gano has been there.

Coach Mike Shanahan was patient with Gano for most of last season, sticking with him and supporting him publicly as the misses mounted. There was frustration in the organization after Gano missed two of three field goal attempts and the Redskins botched a point-after try during a one-point loss to Tampa Bay in Week 14.

Punter and holder Hunter Smith was released. Although Gano stayed in place, it was understood the Redskins planned to explore their options before the 2011 season. As it turned out, their best guy was already on the roster.

In fairness to Gano, he had clutch moments, too.

Against Green Bay in Week 5, Gano’s 33-yarder in overtime gave the Redskins a three-point victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion. In overtime against Tennessee in Week 11, Gano made a 48-yarder for another win by three.

Usually easygoing, Gano does bristle, albeit only a little, if his entire body of work is ignored.

“Yeah, I had some misses. I know that,” Gano said. “But I also had some game-winners. I made some big kicks. That other stuff is behind me.”

Accustomed to kicking in favorable weather while in college at Florida State, Gano acknowledges working at FedEx, particularly later in the season when it turns cold, was unfamiliar to him.

“Up here, I had to adjust a lot,” he said. “And I think, throughout the season, I adjusted pretty well.”

Gano knows he has more to prove. He plans to get it done. Developing top NFL place kickers isn’t easy, but the Redskins are counting on Gano becoming one.

© The Washington Post Company