Locke ready to challenge for punting job

Vikings fifth-round pick Jeff Locke brings some unique qualities to the position and has met the incumbent, Chris Kluwe.

When the Vikings drafted kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth round last year, it sent the clear signal that Ryan Longwell's days as a Viking were numbered. A little more than a week later, the Vikings released Longwell. Walsh exploded on the scene and changed the Vikings special teams, routinely bombing kickoffs for touchbacks, making 10 field goals of 50 or more yards and earning a Pro Bowl spot in his rookie season.

Whether a product of that success, one gets a similar impression from the Vikings' decision to draft UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round of the 2013 draft Saturday. It may have sent a clear message to outspoken Vikings punter Chris Kluwe that he may well have the same fate.

Ten days prior to Locke being drafted, Kluwe told Viking Update, "If I can punt the ball well, then I'll have a job. If I can't, I won't. That's the reality of life in the NFL."

Locke was as heralded as any punter in the college game during his time with the Bruins. A four-year starter, the left-footed Locke averaged 44.2 yards, dropped 99 of his 275 career punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line, had 70 punts of 50 or more yards and never had a kick blocked. His 44.2-yard punt average was second all-time in school history, surpassing the 43.0 career average Kluwe had from 2001-04 at UCLA.

Locke and Kluwe have crossed paths during their careers and, while he doesn't know Kluwe personally, he said he's looking forward to challenging his fellow alumnus for the punting job on the Vikings.

"I met Kluwe one time at UCLA," Locke said. "He was the USC game and I saw him on the sideline, shook his hand and we talked a little bit. We haven't talked a whole lot."

While Locke is looking forward to an NFL career, football wasn't his first sporting love. Until he got coaxed into trying his hand (or, more accurately, his foot) at football by his high school coach prior to his freshman year, he thought his sporting future would be as a soccer playing during his formative years in Arizona.

"Growing up, I was a big soccer player," Locke said. "I hadn't really touched a football until I got to high school and then I just took from there when I started kicking and getting more serious about it."

A tremendous student-athlete who boasted a 3.9 grade point average at UCLA, he earned the respect of his college coach Jim Mora for his work ethic on and off the field.

"He's one of the best punters I've ever been around," Mora told The Los Angeles Times last October. "It's fun to watch him work. It's fun to watch his professionalism in practice and you hope that rubs off on everybody."

Locke had quite a bit of contact with Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer. While many Vikings draft picks comment on the lack of contact they have with Vikings coaches and front office personnel, Locke had an idea the Vikings were interested in him because of the level of interest they showed in him in the months leading up to the draft.

""Pre-draft, we talked at the Senior Bowl and at the combine," Locke said. "We had one-on-one sit-downs and went over some stats and spoke at both of those events. Then he came out for a private workout at UCLA with me and we had dinner that night before."

Whether the Vikings decide to break ties next month with Kluwe as they did in a similar situation last year when Walsh was drafted and Longwell was released shortly thereafter or if the two are going to have a full-blown competition at training camp, Locke said he doesn't worry about the situation being awkward. They're both competing for one roster spot and that isn't unusual in the NFL.

"I don't think it will be (awkard)," Lock said. "I'm just going to come in and compete. Either way, you're competing with someone in the NFL no matter where you are. I'm just going to come in and give it my best. I'm just ready to come in and ready to play football."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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