Last year, the Vikings took a chance on kicker Blair Walsh and were rewarded with a year that ended at the Pro Bowl. A year later, perhaps because of the success they enjoyed with Walsh, the Vikings went the rookie route with their punting position.
Jeff Locke got off to a slow start, but his net and gross punting average has improved each week and he is climbing the rankings every week. After being near the bottom of the league in both categories after his first game, Locke has been climbing the charts consistently. He currently is 16th in punting average (45.9 yards) and eighth in net average (41.8).
Locke is making marked improvement, but he isn't where he wants to be and believes there is still a lot of work to be done before he is at a level he expects of himself.
"It's been slower progress than I would have wanted," Locke said. "I've got good moments and not-so-great moments. I've been a little bit more inconsistent than I would have wanted at this point. I'm definitely looking forward to getting back to work and getting a roll going."
Some of his teammates may be dreading moving outdoors for the next two seasons while the Vikings new stadium is under construction. Locke will actually miss the opportunity to practice in the Metrodome during the week.
"I like kicking indoors because it takes the elements out of it and you know what you're going to get," Locke said. "When we move outside next year, my guess will be that we will be outside more during practices. Right now, we go down to the Metrodome at some point during the week to practice punting and kicking. It's different being the only ones on the field. When we moved to (TCF Bank Stadium) to play, my guess is that we'll do a lot more practicing outside."
Locke wouldn't seem like an ideal candidate for a move outside. Minnesota in December isn't something most players are used to, but Locke is no stranger to playing outdoors in cold, wind and rain.
"It's funny, because people think that because I went to UCLA, I kicked in nothing but warm weather," Locke said. "Every year we had a game that would be in Utah or Washington. We had a bowl game in Washington D.C. that was a snow game. It seemed like every year we had a game or two where the weather came into it. Most games were pretty good weather-wise, but I have experience in bad weather and it won't be anything new for me."
While the move to the new stadium won't happen for another year, Locke's focus is finding the consistency that he and his teammates will know exactly where every punt is going to go. Just as Walsh became an incredibly consistent kicker on both field goals and kickoffs, Locke wants to reach the same level of uniformity. Punting is more complicated than it appears. A kicker doesn't just want distance, he strives for height and directional ability. Out-punt the coverage and bad things can happen. Locke's goal is to make every punt automatic in all three areas – height, distances and directional accuracy.
"It's a matter of finding consistency," Locke said. "You don't want mis-hits or surprises. We want every punt to be about the same. I'll hit one ball that is great and then the next one won't be the same. That's our focus now – finding a consistency level. I think we're making progress there, but it's still not at the level I want it to be."
The Vikings haven't had a game yet where they have depended on Locke to play a significant role in winning the game, but, in football, all three phases of the team (offense, defense and special teams) need to work in conjunction to be successful. Locke has made strides since he had some inconsistent days down in Mankato, but he won't be satisfied until he can make each punting situation automatic.
"I feel like I've improved from where I was when we showed up at training camp, but there's still a ways to go," Locke said. "The Vikings take a lot of pride in their special teams and I am expected to do my part. Hopefully, we will get to the point soon. If we can get that consistency, we can be one of the best special teams in the league. I'm looking forward to doing my part to get that done."
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.
Locke climbs charts, strives for consistency
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