CARLISLE, PA., AUG. 6 -- Jess Atkinson doesn't look like an incumbent. As everyone know, incumbents are jaded and cynical. Atkinson, on the other hand, is young and eager, with a young player's ambition reflected in his brown eyes.

Nevertheless, an incumbent is what Atkinson is in the Washington Redskins' training camp. His tenure hasn't been long, but it has been very successful and, for the first time since he was a senior at Maryland, Atkinson has a job that's his to lose.

If all this doesn't seem strange to him, it's because he's watched several older, established kickers retain their jobs at his expense. He has been cut four times, including once by the Redskins during last year's training camp.

"I've gone up against a couple of the best incumbents," he said today after practice. "Mark {Moseley} was easily one of the best that ever kicked, and Tony Franklin {of New England} is, too. I've seen the way they act. This is my third year, but I feel like a 10-year veteran. When you've been cut four times, there's not a lot they could throw at me that I can't handle. I understand where to focus my energy."

The Redskins went with Max Zendejas for much of last year, but Zendejas' problems with extra points made a lot of Redskins queasy. When Zendejas was put on the injured reserve list with a mysterious groin injury, the Redskins turned to Atkinson. In his one regular season game, Atkinson went three for three on extra points. Then he made four of four in the playoffs, along with all six of his field goal attempts. Four of the field goals came in a 19-7 wild card victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

"It's his job to lose," coach Joe Gibbs said. "He came in last year under pressure and hit everything. That sticks in your mind. Max was here but that didn't happen with him. But if {Atkinson} starts off and doesn't do it, then the job will go to whoever does."

Said special teams coach Chuck Banker: "I liken it to a boxing match. Whoever can knock out the champion gets the job."

After setting a slew of records for the Terrapins and graduating with a degree in business, Atkinson tried out with the Patriots in 1985. They cut him in training camp, but the Giants signed him before their third game to replace the injured Ali Haji-Sheikh. Atkinson made 10 of 15 field goals and 14 of 15 extra points, but was cut after the eighth game.

The St. Louis Cardinals signed him, and he was three for three in extra points in two games, then was cut. The Redskins signed him before the 1986 season, but cut him in training camp.

He went to work for the Shawmut company, an Annapolis mortgage firm, and waited for another chance to kick. And after he helped the Redskins to the NFC championship game, he went back to the mortgage company.

"I had made a commitment to them," he said. "Ed Cinotti, my boss, has been really super about it. I really learned a lot there and they put up with my seasonal work, if you will. They could have found another loan officer in a minute."

Though Gibbs didn't tell him it was his job to lose, Atkinson knew he would be starting from a better position than at any other time in his pro career. With that in mind, he adjusted his training. He took a fresh look at his offseason training with the help of his father, Jerry, and decided to pull back a bit.

"What I tried to do was, instead of peaking right at the start, I wanted to make sure I was moving up but also have room for improvement," he said. "I was a classic overtrainer. This time, I made myself stop when I wanted to do one more rep or set or kick. I always wanted to be able to come back and do more."

Atkinson said he is trying to be more patient with himself.

"I'm not staying down long enough," he said. "Basically, I'm doing it on one or two kicks out of 10."

He said he's feeling good about his kicking and glad to hear Gibbs' comments. But he understands that kickers probably have the least security on a football team.

"It's nice to have that confidence," he said, "but I also understand that, when the team gets down there, they want three points out of me. I don't care if you hit 50 percent or 99 percent of your field goals, the same pressure is there. Whether it's Day One of camp and you're fighting for a job or you're a 10-year veteran with the job locked up, you've got to put it through the uprights. If you don't, they'll use somebody else they have or maybe go to a mortgage company to find a kicker."

But he said the challenge of being only as good as your last kick is stimulating.

"Everybody can tell if the kicker is doing his job," he said. "With a tight end or a linebacker, it's harder to see what they're doing. But with a kicker, you know straight up."

If the Redskins hadn't called, he might have stayed in banking, but he has also played with the idea of following in the footsteps of his father, a Navy pilot.

"My father kids me," he said. "I was talking about how I made 93 straight extra points in college. Then he said, 'Well, Jess, I had 104 successful night carrier landings. What do think would have happened if I only had 93? I stopped talking. I knew which one was harder."

Atkinson is interested enough to have done some homework. He will be 26 in December, and 27 is the age limit to enter as an officer, he said.

"I'm reading this 600-page book with nothing but in-depth details about jets. Steve Cox {his roommate here} has his Edgar Allan Poe and I'm gobbling up info on {Navy F-14} Tomcats."

With his hand on the stick, a pilot holds his life and those of others in his hands. A football game is hardly as important, but he sees an analogy.

"Every day you're testing yourself," he said. "Pilots do the same thing. They get hazardous duty pay, but they'd all fly for free. You have to have that same sort of desire to be a kicker. You have to want to do it. If you're doing it for any other reason, you'll find yourself in trouble."