Jeff Locke is a lock for the roster as the only punter on the Minnesota Vikings heading into training camp, but that doesn't mean there isn't any pressure.
The Vikings already released T.J. Conley and Chris Kluwe to clear the path for Locke, their fifth-round draft choice, but there was an underrated aspect of Kluwe's job that Locke is assuming – holding on field goals and extra points. Considering the thin margin for error in the NFL, it is a critical aspect of special teams.
Last year, the Vikings won 10 games and made the playoffs, but they their average score was 23.68 to 21.75. Five of those wins were by seven points or fewer, adding to the importance of the kicking game, where Blair Walsh set several records.
Those NFL records – which included going 10-for-10 on field goals from 50 yards or more and three field goals of 50 yards or more in one game – were done with Kluwe holding for Walsh. But, according to Locke, Walsh's stellar season doesn't bring additional pressure to the rookie punter who is taking over the holding duties.
"I don't think there is any added pressure. No matter what Blair did last year, I want to make it perfect for him," Locke said. "That's a big thing with kicking – the longer he can see the ball, the more confident he can be that the ball is going to be there, that he's going to do that no matter what."
Walsh was generally impressive once again in offseason practices, and he and Locke will be working together a lot in the coming months and years. They form an impressive young duo – Locke is actually a little more than three months older than Walsh and will turn 24 in September.
Long snapper Cullen Loeffler is the 10-year veteran of the group and is 32.
Locke is already an accomplished punter, averaging 44.23 yards gross and 39.48 net at UCLA, but he was also a solid kickoff man. He averaged 65.96 yards on 264 kickoffs, although that duty will remain with Walsh, who set a Vikings record with 53 touchbacks last year, third-most in the NFL.
The Vikings will allow Locke to concentrate on his punting and holding. He held for the last two years at UCLA.
"He held for a young kicker last year that liked the ball tilted back so we had to break him of some bad habits," special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said after a minicamp practice last month. "He had a great day yesterday for us and Blair hit the ball well, I think he made nine of 10, including the two situations. Blair is feeling more and more comfortable with him, and Cullen is working great. He's kind of the old veteran, now the leader for our young group. I'm excited about those three working together."
"I think it's going well," he said. "The first couple days I had to get used to what Blair wanted. Every kicker wants a little different tilt, a different angle on it so I think we're really getting into a zone in that aspect."
The on-the-field results won't start until the preseason games, but the off-the-field bonding has already been a work in progress. Walsh tweeted a humorous vine video of Locke holding at different locations around Winter Park, including a laundry tub and in the shower, and Locke played along with it.
"Blair is a good producer. He told me where to go and I held the ball," the obedient rookie said. "Him and Cullen tell me where to go and I'm there."
He's hoping that is a successful strategy on the field, too.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Rookie Locke looking to keep Walsh efficient
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