Lost in the all the bluster surrounding the Minnesota Vikings' release of punter Chris Kluwe is exactly what the team got in his replacement.
The selection of former UCLA Bruin Jeff Locke all but sealed Kluwe's fate, but before the Vikings released Kluwe, coach Leslie Frazier said there was something more they needed to see out of Locke after he spent the first practice of Vikings rookie camp punting at the Metrodome.
"You just want to make sure that he handles some of the situations we're going to put him in," Frazier said. "(Special teams coordinator) Mike Priefer and some of our other people took him down to the Dome today to kick. Just want to put him in different situations and see how he responds."
When Locke returned for the second practice at the Vikings' Winter Park fieldhouse, which has a ceiling too low to effectively gauge punts and the weather wasn't conducive to punting outside, Locke spent time fielding snaps and placing them for the hold.
In reality, that might be the biggest risk the Vikings run in replacing Kluwe with Locke. Rookie kicker Blair Walsh had a record-setting debut for the Vikings, making a franchise-record 10 kicks of 50 yards or longer and breaking the NFL record. Adding a new holder into the mix isn't without risk.
Walsh and Locke will be able to work together during organized team activities over the summer, but holding is just one of many duties Locke performed during his extremely versatile career as a kicker at UCLA.
In addition to ranking second in school history for number of punts (275), punting yards (12,163) and average (44.23), he was a kickoff specialist – even kicking onside kicks – holder and occasional field goal kicker for longer attempts (hitting 2-of-3 from long range in 2011).
Still, with Walsh in place to handle kickoffs and long field goals with the best of them, Locke will concentrate mainly on punting. He was happy with his first work as an NFL player.
"It went really well. It was cool to see (the Metrodome) for the first time, and I thought I punted really well," he said after his first practice last week.
"Kind of just the basics – directional both ways, inside the 20s, backed up. We kind of went through everything, did a couple punts."
The Vikings certainly got to know Locke well before making him the first punter or kicker drafted this year (one punter and two kickers went in the next 22 picks). Representatives from the Vikings talked to him at the Senior Bowl in January, at the NFL Scouting Combine in February and gave him a private workout.
The Vikings were one of six teams that gave Locke a private workout, joining the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens (the Lions were the other team to draft a punter, Sam Martin, 10 picks after the Vikings selected Locke).
After getting rookie minicamp weekend to work more extensively with him, the Vikings made the move to release Kluwe one day after that camp was complete. It was a nearly identical timeline to the one the Vikings followed last after drafting Walsh to replace Ryan Longwell.
"Similar process, although a different position, but, yeah, try to test him a little bit and see how he handles certain things," Frazier said.
Locke said he hadn't heard from Kluwe in the time between the Vikings drafting Locke and the time he began impressing coaches. Both players went to UCLA and the two met briefly when Kluwe returned to watch a game against USC. There wasn't much of a relationship established, but, Locked said, "I've heard he's vocal about some of the things he does."
With Kluwe released, however, the focus is on what Locke can do. The answer to that is: a lot.
In addition to kicking and punting at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Ariz., Locke played wide receiver and was an all-region soccer player three times, earning Regional Player of the Year in soccer in 2007. He was ranked the best high school punter in the country by Scout.com and the best place-kicker by ESPN and Rivals.com. Although the Vikings plan to continue using Walsh as their kickoff man, Locke had 76.4 percent of his 89 kickoffs in 2012 go for touchbacks. He averaged 65.96 yards on kickoffs, one of the best in the nation.
Still, punting is his specialty. The Vikings like the fact that he kicks left-footed, believing that creates unique spin that returners aren't always used to. But the distance and height on his punts justified his selection either way. Only 37.82 percent of his 275 punts in college were even returned.
Despite his versatility, Locke said he is just trying to concentrate on his calling card and appreciates working with Priefer.
"I'm just trying to do what I do. I'm not trying to do anything extra. I've just got to keep doing what I've been doing to get to this point, and keep refining my technique," he said.
"(Priefer) is great. We get to work every day. We don't waste any time. We come in and we work on everything – all the small points and the technique. Even today, we were going through holding, nitpicking on everything. I like him a lot."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Vikings find versatility, production in Locke
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