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Patriots' kicker eyes strong second season

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A year after winning a training camp kick-off to replace Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri, Stephen Gostkowski has the job all to himself. But he knows competition is
just a phone call away.

As a rookie, Gostkowski beat out veteran free agent Martin Gramatica to become Vinatieri's successor with the New England Patriots. He filled the shoes well, hitting 21 of his last 23
kicks, including all eight of his attempts in the playoffs.

The Patriots do not have another kicker in camp, but Gostkowski said he's sure the team has "10 guys on their phone list if something bad were to happen to me."

"Last year, I had no idea what to expect," Gostkowski said. "I still feel pretty brand new. I only have one year under my belt. I still have to go out here and prove myself every day."

Still, the former fourth-round pick out of Memphis did get a boost from his first season.

"You want to be confident out there when you're kicking a field goal because it's just you out there," he said. "You want your coaches to be confident. The more confidence they have in me, the more I have."

Coach Bill Belichick said Gostkowski's preparation should be the same whether or not there's competition in camp.

"He's a good kicker. He has to re-establish his playing and performance level just like everybody else does," Belichick said. "It's a long process. I think the big thing for any player is to get himself ready to go and worry about his preparation for the season. Whether somebody else is there competing with him or not competing with him, there's not really much you can do about that. You just have to go out and do what you can do."

Gostkowski struggled early as a rookie, missing three straight kicks at one point. The Jets blocked a 29-yard attempt in Week 2, and the Broncos did the same in Week 3 on a 37-yard try. Gostkowski missed wide on a 48-yarder the following week in Cincinnati but then made 16 of his next 17 to get on a roll.

"It wasn't the first time I've ever missed kicks," he said. "It won't be the last. There have been a lot more rough times in my kicking career than that. I've usually been able to bounce back."

Gostkowski's longest kick was a 52-yarder before halftime against the Bears in November. Vinatieri had always been able to handle the gusty, late-season conditions at Gillette Stadium. That kick showed the rookie could master the elements, too.

"You just have to stay loose," he said. "It gets cold on the sidelines."

It was unseasonably chilly in San Diego for the Patriots' divisional-round playoff game in January. Gostkowski again came through by hitting a 31-yard field goal with 70 seconds left to
snap a 21-all tie. The Patriots hung on to win, 24-21.

Gostkowski could have been a hero in the AFC championship game in Indianapolis. His 43-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter put the Patriots ahead, but Vinatieri and the Colts rallied for a 38-34 win.

"Right now, I just have to concentrate on how many kicks I'm going to make this year and what I have to do to go forward," Gostkowski said. "Last year, I'm glad what happened, happened, but it's over."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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