By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 25, 2009; D01
Before nearly every game of Graham Gano's high school career, his coach, Charlie Armstrong, would ask about his leg.
That was nothing unusual; through 34 years as a high school football coach in Florida, Armstrong regularly quizzed his kickers after pregame warm-ups. Gano's answers, though, stood out. When his leg wasn't feeling fresh, Gano would tell his coach he was good from merely 50 or 55 yards. When his leg felt lively, he'd say he was good from 70.
"It was obvious he was head and shoulders above a normal kid," Armstrong recalled this week. "The way the ball came off his foot, the sound of the ball when he hits it was just different than anything I'd ever seen. Sometimes it sounded like a gun was shot."
Which is why when he was still a high schooler in Pensacola, teammates and coaches were already mentioning the NFL as a realistic possibility. And every step of Gano's career seemed to confirm those expectations: He was named USA Today's national high school kicker of the year as a senior, earned a full scholarship to Florida State as a punter and kicker, won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top place kicker a year ago, and then earned tryouts with more than a half-dozen NFL teams, including a preseason audition with the Baltimore Ravens.
Finally, after the Redskins cut ties with Shaun Suisham earlier this month, Gano was signed to a three-year contract, and told by special teams coach Danny Smith that he could be Washington's long-term answer.
"They said they want me to be the kicker for the future," Gano said. "If I kick well and keep kicking well, hopefully they'll decide to keep me."
And in a season of dwindling storylines, Gano will deserve an extra glance during Sunday's home finale against the Dallas Cowboys. Suisham signed with Dallas, his former team, and will make his third Cowboys debut against the Redskins. Dallas Coach Wade Phillips said Suisham has already explained the details of special teams fakes to the Dallas coaching staff, which didn't surprise Washington Coach Jim Zorn.
"I'm glad [Suisham's] working, I'm not happy he's working for Dallas," Zorn said. "That's just how it is. He's got to have loyalty. We let him go for gosh sakes; I'd spill the beans. You almost have to. You've got to be loyal to that club."
Gano, meantime, is trying to bring stability to what has been the Redskins' least stable position. He is the 16th place kicker the team has used in the past 15 seasons. The Redskins have used at least two kickers during six of the past 10 seasons.
Gano, though, has among the best pedigrees the Redskins have seen. Leg strength has always been his calling card; he was a high school soccer star who came to football only after realizing his school didn't offer soccer during summer school. Football coaches won his services after promising his parents and soccer coaches not to put Gano in harm's way, and regularly reprimanded him for sneaking into wide receiver drills. He went on to make two of the eight longest kicks in U.S. prep history, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, one from 64 yards and one from 65.
Armstrong, his high school coach, said he regularly put kickoffs through the uprights, and he's already recorded three touchbacks in his 10 kickoffs with the Redskins. (Suisham, in 222 kickoffs with the Redskins, had just 20 touchbacks.)
"He kicks the crap out of the ball," Redskins tight end Todd Yoder said of Gano. "He kicks touchbacks. In the NFL, that's the mark of a strong leg."
That wasn't enough to impress the Ravens, who went with the since-released Steven Hauschka. Gano went on to the fledgling UFL and then spent weeks training by himself, concentrating on his reliability.
"There's a lot of guys with big strong legs out there who can kick the ball far," he said. "The difference is how accurate you are and how consistent you are with your form, so I knew that's what I had to work on."
And he already ran into trouble on that account, having an extra point blocked against the Giants last week. (Oddly, the kick was blocked by Fred Robbins, who went to Gano's high school and who Gano nearly hit with footballs during one training session back home.) Zorn attributed it to a combination of penetration on the line and a low kick; Gano said he wouldn't have done anything differently. A sore heel on his kicking foot has also limited his chances to impress during practice, although Zorn said Gano has been "coming on" this week.
"He just continues to show well, he's handling the pressure of that position well," Zorn said. "He hasn't really been tested with any long field goals yet. We'll see what happens."
Crucial misses eventually ended Suisham's time in Washington; Gano, on the other hand, has a reputation for thriving under pressure, making 24 of 26 kicks during his senior year at Florida State, and converting all of his chances under 50 yards.
"When it counted, he wasn't gonna miss 'em," Armstrong said. "When I put him out on those things, there was no doubt we were gonna score. We'd already tell the kickoff people to get down on the other side, because we knew it was gonna go through."