- - Wednesday, February 1, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS — Danny Aiken didn’t have much time to feel disappointed. Cut by the Buffalo Bills in his first try at making an NFL team, Aiken hadn’t made it home to Roanoke, Va., when the New England Patriots called and told him to head to Foxborough, Mass.

Aiken, a rookie from the University of Virginia, was going to be New England’s long snapper. For nine seasons, the anonymous post had been held down by Lonie Paxton, but Paxton’s departure in 2009 to Denver via free agency started the Patriots on a run of three players at the position.

That’s a recipe for disaster in an area of the game that relies heavily on continuity and timing.

As the Patriots prepare for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants at Lucas Oil Stadium, one of the last things they worry about is the initial step in their kicking game.

“We just got thrown into the situation,” kicker Stephen Gostkowski said. “It wasn’t the ideal situation, but Danny has done more than a good enough job stepping right in. He’s a cool, calm, collected guy. You know you can trust him with each and every snap.”

Aiken played quarterback, defensive line and was his team’s long snapper at Cave Spring High School. It wasn’t until he spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy that the obscure position became a ticket to Aiken’s journey to the ACC and the NFL.

“I wasn’t big enough to play in college so I went [to Fork Union] to try to get bigger,” said Aiken. “One day, I was punting for the team and something happened to our snapper, so I went in and snapped and it ended up working out. It was just one of those things where I was at the right place at the right time. UVa. took interest, and I was very blessed and lucky for it to work out the way it did.”

Aiken was a four-year starter for the Cavaliers and the highest-rated long snapper among last year’s prospects by NFLDraftScout.com. He played in last year’s Senior Bowl, forming a close relationship with the Buffalo coaching staff during the week. Aiken went undrafted. While the NFL players were locked out last summer, Aiken was one of hundreds of college free agents waiting for a resolution to the labor conflict.

When the NFL finally opened for business in late July, Aiken signed with the Bills even though they had a solid incumbent in Garrison Sanborn, who had played in 32 consecutive games. The competition went down to the final preseason game before Buffalo chose to stick with Sanborn.

As it turns out, it was the perfect break for Aiken.

He has snapped the ball 160 times this season, including playoffs, on punts and place-kicks and all of them have been playable.

“It went by so fast that you just had to go with it, because when I walked in [at New England] it was the first week of the season. You have to take it in full stride, do the best you can and pick everything up,” Aiken said. “You just had to go. Every one of these guys is a professional … and they’re great guys, Zoltan [Mesko, the Patriots‘ punter] and Steve. They helped me out with what I needed to do to get better, and we just went forward from there.”

Aiken wasn’t asked to deal with protection concerns his last three seasons at Virginia; on punts, he snapped the ball and took off immediately in coverage. That has changed with the Patriots. He’s responsible for making the correct interior protection calls before any coverage responsibilities.

“There’s a learning curve there, and we knew that,” said New England special teams coach Scott O’Brien. “But we like his consistency, and we like his mental ability to not only process and learn things but retain them. It was a good fit for us when we made the decision. He fit right in, and he’s a great worker. We saw the potential in him, he came in and he’s done a good job for us.”



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