Ever since he arrived in Green Bay this spring, Dave Rayner has been trying to shake the label "kickoff specialist."
Well, now's his chance.
With the release of Billy Cundiff on Thursday, the Packers are giving Rayner, a second-year pro who spent his rookie season in 2005 kicking off for Indianapolis, the best opportunity he could have asked for to be a full-time kicker in 2006.
"I didn't get a whole lot of feedback since I've been here, but I think this is kind of their way of saying, 'Hey, we have confidence, we think you're the guy,'" Rayner said after Thursday evening's practice. "Obviously I have to continue to kick well and show them they made the right decision, but I think it is a vote of confidence from the coaching staff, the general manager and everybody."
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said he assessed the situation much like he has with the offensive line, where the Packers have thrust promising rookies into starting roles to speed up their learning curve and find out how quickly they can become contributors at the professional level.
"It's really the same situation, it's a young player that has done well," McCarthy said. "We felt like he was ahead of Billy. You only have so many reps, and when you're dealing with youth, we just made a decision we're going to give him the best opportunity to prepare with the number of reps we had today and get ready for Saturday, and we're going to continue with him the rest of the preseason."
Rayner admitted he was a little surprised to become the only kicker on the roster before the second preseason contest, especially when he hasn't attempted a field goal in a game yet this year. His only action in the preseason opener last Saturday at San Diego was an onside kick, which the Packers recovered.
But he is without a doubt excited about the golden opportunity in front of him, which began Thursday night when he took all 10 field-goal attempts in the special teams portion of practice and made eight of them. Rayner hit his first five (from 24, 31, 37, 32 and 38 yards), missed wide left from 47 and 49 yards, and then finished with three good ones from 52, 43 and 47 yards.
"I was only kicking four or five balls before, and now I'm kicking 10 and obviously with the adrenaline and under the lights and all that, I was juiced up," said Rayner, who felt the only bad kick was one he 'yanked' from 49. "It was by far my favorite night of camp so far. I kicked the ball well I think, and everything is falling into place.
"Shoot, if I can go 80 percent on the year kicking here, I would be all smiles."
He'd also love to prove himself as an all-around kicker, not just the guy who kicked off for Mike Vanderjagt in Indianapolis last year (and attempted one field goal, a miss from 59 yards). Rayner was taken in the sixth round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Colts after a four-year career at Michigan State, where he made 62 of 90 career field-goal attempts and 148 of 151 PATs.
He parlayed his leg strength into the rookie part-time duty, and though it certainly beat being unemployed, the work came with a label that was fast to stick.
"I wasn't drafted there as a kickoff specialist," he said. "I was brought in as a kicker who they were going to bring up as Mike's replacement, but Mike didn't kick off well. So they said, 'Hey, we'll try to get you on the field right now and save us bringing somebody else in.' So I kicked off all last year for them, and I'm pretty sure they had intentions of letting me be their kicker the next year."
But that plan never came to fruition, as the Colts in April signed free agent Adam Vinatieri, one of the game's most reliable and clutch kickers during a distinguished career in New England.
Rayner understood the move, and three days later was claimed off waives by the Packers and brought to Green Bay to compete with Cundiff in the battle to replace departed free agent Ryan Longwell.
He was prepared to give it his best shot, but at the same time it didn't feel entirely like a fresh start. The specialist tag had come with him from Indy, and he had to keep trying to explain the other half of his resume.
"It was hard to relay to people, I do kick field goals, and I was pretty good at it in college for four years," Rayner said. "I think this whole thing today and me kicking field goals for the next couple weeks of preseason will hopefully let people know I'm here to do both jobs and not just kick off."
The Packers are giving him a dream chance to prove that. McCarthy said part of the decision was based on Rayner's potential, which will only be fully uncovered if he's given a long, hard look as the No. 1 guy.
"It's about opportunities and he is young," McCarthy said. "He has a strong leg, and I think he has a winner's substance to him. I like his personality, I like his approach, and I'm excited to see how he does."
The job is by no means locked up, though. McCarthy added the team's personnel department will be watching the waiver wire as the preseason unfolds, and other kickers with more established credentials are sure to become available as rosters are trimmed.
But it's Rayner's intention to ward off any challengers before they're even asked to join him on the practice field.
"The last couple weeks I've kicked the ball really well," he said. "I'm kind of in that groove and feeling really good and it's going to be about what I do. That's all I can worry about and what I can take care of.
"What other kickers are out there and everything, I don't know and it's not really bothering me. I just need to continue to do what I'm doing, and if I kick well then I'll have a job here for a long time."