ST. LOUIS - Greg Zuerlein's secret is out. The St. Louis Rams' second-year kicker cheated a bit during his coach-ordered, three-month rest period earlier this year.
Last season as a rookie, Zuerlein came from out of nowhere to convert his first 15 field goal attempts. He bottomed out over the second half, missing eight of his final 16 tries, and special teams coordinator John Fassel attributed the drop-off to fatigue and told Zuerlein to rest from January to March.
"He stayed fit, but he stayed away from kicking for a while," Fassel said.
Well, not exactly. The always-active Zuerlein did tone it down a bit - but he also couldn't stay away completely.
"He doesn't know it, but I'd sneak out there and tap a few," Zuerlein said. "Nothing hard. Some light taps just to get the foot to the ball. But nothing strenuous."
The well-rested Zuerlein is looking to improve on a solid rookie campaign. He made 23-of-31 attempts and booted a franchise-record 60-yarder in a 19-13 win against Seattle.
Zuerlein was an impressive 7-for-13 from 50 yards or longer, including a 58-yard bomb. He hit all seven of his tries from the 40-to-49-yard range.
Still, the Missouri Western State product is haunted by his less-than-perfect second half. He missed three field goals, including a 37-yarder, in a 17-14 loss at Miami which started the downfall.
"Worst season I've ever had," Zuerlein said. "I wasn't happy with it. I missed some big kicks that our team needed."
Zuerlein is his own worst critic. He still takes the blame for missing a 66-yarder on the last play of regulation in the three-point loss at Miami. The 24-year-old had enough distance on the kick but pulled it to the left.
"Could've made them all," he said of his eight misses. "Should have made them all. I've never missed that many - ever."
Zuerlein's early 15-kick blitz to start the season included a 56-yarder outdoors in Chicago.
"He started on fire," Fassel said. "But he wasn't happy with the way it ended. A lot of that had to do with a young guy just getting worn out."
Zuerlein kicked for two years straight from his senior season in college to early January. Although he said the three-month rest was difficult, he realizes now that it was for his own good.
"It was kind of boring, but I needed it," he said. "I feel a lot better for it."
Zuerlein has yet to cut loose in training camp. He expects to ease into a groove over the next few weeks.
The Rams held a special teams only practice Sunday morning. Zuerlein did some work on the side but did not attempt to kick.
Fassel wants to ease his prize pupil into the upcoming season in hopes he can remain fresh down the stretch.
"His strength has improved, so his ability and his success later in the season should improve," Fassel said.
The Rams drafted Zeurlein in the sixth round of the 2012 draft. On the same day, they released kicker Josh Brown after four solid seasons with the team.
That gamble paid immediate dividends as Zuerlein came within one kick of trying the NFL record for most successful field goals to start a career set by Garrett Hartley of New Orleans in 2008-09.
Now, Zuerlein is determined to avoid any sophomore jinx.
"Right now, I feel more comfortable than I did last year at this time," he said.
The special teams-only practice lasted just more than an hour. The highlights came during a set of gunner drills where several minor scuffles broke out. First-round draft choice Tavon Austin returned punts during the workout along with Isaiah Pead, Nick Johnson, Zac Stacy, Chase Reynolds and Andre Martin.