August 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lions kickers challenge each other -- while crowd gathers around

Seventh-round draft pick Nate Freese, above, and free agent Giorgio Tavecchio are competing. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Allen Park — While most of the key position battles already are decided, the Lions still have to figure out who will win one of the most critical jobs — kicker.

For 21 years, Jason Hanson held down the position, including playing in two Pro Bowls in his storied career. But when Hanson retired following the 2012 season, the Lions were subpar, with David Akers making 19 of 24 field goals (79 percent) and 42 of 43 extra points. He wasn’t re-signed.

This year’s competition is down to seventh-round draft pick Nate Freese and free agent Giorgio Tavecchio, who have been neck-and-neck all training camp.

During Wednesday’s practice, the kickers took part in a raucous competition, with only the kicker, holder and snapper involved. The other teammates gathered in a semicircle around them, whooping and making other noises to try to simulate the adverse conditions they will face in Friday night’s preseason road match-up at the Raiders.

“We’re trying to create different situations where we have a lot of competition, so we’re just trying to come up with different ways to do that,” coach Jim Caldwell said.

“Today was one, and we’ll do something else probably tomorrow and maybe something the next day. So we’ll just keep it going until we have to make a decision.”

Freese appears to be leading the race, taking most of the first-team reps and taking the kicking duties during the first exhibition game, a 13-12 win over the Browns. Freese, who played at Boston College, made field goals of 37 and 32 yards in the win. Tavecchio converted his only extra-point attempt, which was from the extended distance of 33 yards.

In practice, Tavecchio made the first three of his five attempts (from 36, 46 and 54 yards). He missed the final two tries from 63 and 67 yards.

“(The teammates) were very close — it’s kind of a claustrophobic experience, but that’s part of the distraction,” said Tavecchio, who played at California. “You have to focus in mentally and do what you need to do to put the ball through the pipes.”

Tavecchio missed wide left from 63, but was a couple of yards short from hitting the 67-yarder, which he lamented.

“I hit it halfway decent but it didn’t feel like I got the full thump off my foot, so I felt like I left it a little bit out there,” he said.

“I’m just a little bit disappointed because had I hit it a little more solid, it could have snuck in.”

The defensive players were most vocal in trying to get the kickers off their games, forcing them to focus on mechanics and block out the distractions.

“Most of it became white noise — which I appreciate, because it means I was focused — but I did hear some Italian stuff about pizza,” Tavecchio joked. “I couldn’t tell you who said it and when because I was focused from the distraction.”

Caldwell said the players got into the task of trying to distract the kickers more than he expected — which turned out to be a positive.

“Just trying to add a little competition, a little pressure, something a little different. Out of the ordinary, that we went a little overboard, you know, just trying to make sure that he can focus,” Caldwell said. “I think they did a decent job. At the end, those are some long, long field goals.”

Freese missed his attempt from 36 yards, converted from 46 and 54 but missed wide left from 62 and short and right from 67.

“They were pretty long field goals so I had to play the wind a little bit and sometimes that’s difficult,” Freese said. “All I heard was noise, and I tried not to pay attention to what they were saying.

“I didn’t see their faces; I was trying to focus on the ball.”

Many of the Lions veterans know the importance of having a consistent kicking game — and Caldwell has had Hanson out a few times to help with the young kickers to try to pass on some of his wisdom.

What Caldwell didn’t expect was that the players would get into Wednesday’s kicking competition as much as they did.

“They enjoyed doing it because of the fact that they know that we’re trying to find the best guy for that spot because in the ballgame there’s going to be some tough situations,” Caldwell said.

“The placekickers in this league win a lot of football games for you because every single game is tight. Even last week you can see how important that extra point was and obviously that will go on throughout the year.”

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

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