John Lee, former UCLA place-kicker and second-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals, has started his professional career right where he left off in college.
Lee, a two-time All-American, converted on field goal attempts of 39, 20 and 39 yards to help the Cardinals past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 26-10, in National Football League exhibition action Aug. 9.
Through three preseason games, Lee is six for six. He hit field goals of 28, 39 and 25 yards against the New England Patriots in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. He's also three for three in points after touchdowns, although he had one attempt blocked in a 27-26 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend.
"Those all are chip shots," said Lee, who rewrote the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. record books with 79 regular-season field goals, an .859 career percentage (79 of 92), and a .964 percentage for attempts inside 40 yards (54 of 56).
"If I miss those, it would devastate the team. You can't drive 50, 60 yards and come up with nothing."
But that's exactly what the Cardinals frequently did last year.
Neil O'Donoghue, the Auburn product who ended a six-year career with the Cards last season, converted just 10 of 18 field goals, 8 of 12 inside the 40-yard line.
That helps explain the Cards' 5-11 record and the selection of Lee with the 32nd pick of the draft, the fourth highest kicker ever selected with only Charlie Gogolak (Washington, 1966), Steve Little (St. Louis, 1976) and Russell Erxleban (New Orleans, 1979) picked earlier.
"I want points, so I'm very pleased (with Lee)," said Coach Gene Stallings, in his first year at St. Louis after 14 seasons as an assistant at Dallas. "The kicking game has been good."
But all of the credit can't go to Lee.
The other kickers, Evan Arapostathis, a rookie free agent from Eastern Illinois, and Danny Miller, a free agent from Miami of Florida, have seen considerable playing time.
Miller, one of 11 roster cuts Monday, hit a 27-yard field goal, missed one from 52 and converted two PATs against Tampa Bay. Arapostathis has handled much of the kicking off.
At UCLA Lee didn't kick off. Ken Potter had that responsibility during Lee's first three seasons and Jim Bray did it last year.
If Lee has a weakness, inexperience kicking off is it.
Lee thought he answered some critics in two all-star games last season in which he kicked off eight times and eight times put the ball into the end zone.
As a professional, Lee has kicked off three times. He sent the opening kickoff against Tampa Bay to the nine and his second reached the seven. Last week his lone attempt went to the three.
While college teams, with 100-man rosters, can afford two kickers, one to kick field goals and extra points and one to kick off, NFL teams have only 45 players.
"I doubt if we can afford the luxury of having two guys kicking off," said Stallings after the Tampa Bay game, seemingly unconcerned about Lee handling that duty. "I didn't want him kicking that old, heavy ball too much tonight."
Still, Lee is certain he can do more than just make field goals.
"All I have to do is just go out there and kick the ball," he said. "Tonight you really couldn't kick the ball that well because the ground was so soft (after a 50-minute thunderstorm). So, I just kind of stroked the ball. The last thing I want to do is slip and fall."
An injury would be about the only thing to stop Lee, who signed a contract for a reported $900,000 for four years.
"I know that I can be as good as any other kicker in the NFL. So there's no reason for me to start worrying about kicking off."