The 2013 Vikings rookie class has set the foundation for the future of the franchise, with all three of their first-round picks looking to replace some of the better names of recent Vikings vintage. It can be argued that Sharrif Floyd will be the long-term replacement to Kevin Williams, while Cordarrelle Patterson and Xavier Rhodes were drafted to replace Antoine Winfield and Percy Harvin, respectively.
But forgotten in the mix has been punter Jeff Locke. For the most part, fans haven't heard much about Locke this season. In the case of a punter, that's good news.
"Punters and kickers usually get more notice for their mistakes than doing their jobs well," Locke said. "If I can fly under the radar and do my job well, that's fine with me."
Locke admitted early on in the season that he was having trouble with consistency. When the team puts in a special teams game plan, specific duties are required of the punter. Some with sacrifice distance for height, allowing the coverage teams to get downfield and not allow any returns. Others go for the 60-yard bomb and have their coverage unit swarm down the field. Others will use directional punting to push the ball toward the sideline and box a returner in.
"It changes from week to week," Locke said. "Sometimes we'll see something we can take advantage of so we will do more directional punting. Last week against Chicago, we went with the hang time approach with (Devin) Hester because he's dangerous and he's hurt us over the years. The plan against him was to try to punt the ball so high that our coverage guys would be down there by the time the ball came down."
Hester was kept in check, which has been in keeping with Locke's improvement over the season. He has found his stroke and believes he is a much better punter now than he was when the Vikings opened the season at Detroit.
"It's getting better," Locke said. "I'd say the last two games against Green Bay and Chicago were two of my most consistent games of the season. It's something I've been working on a lot over the season. You can't just try to kick the ball as far as you can because if you give a returner a chance to get a running start and a head of steam, they can get huge returns that can put us in a hole."
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said he had a little "heart to heart" with Locke after the Seattle game because the coach felt Locke was thinking too much.
"He was pressing too much, he was trying to be perfect too much. He's a talented guy. Just go out and do what you do," Priefer said.
"I honestly told him he was the dumbest smart guy I've met in my life because he all he did was think. He was overthinking, overanalyzing and just wasn't going out there and doing what he does."
One of the reasons the Vikings drafted Locke was that he kicks left-footed. It creates a reverse spin on punts that returners don't work on that much because the vast majority of punters kick with their right foot and the spin on the ball is relatively consistent.
So concerned have the Vikings been over the years about facing a lefty punter, when a team coming up on the schedule had a left-footed punter, the Vikings would invariably bring in a lefty for a "tryout." He wasn't going to win the job, but was going to give the return men practice in dealing with the ball coming down from a lefty, which Locke explained, is the opposite of what they're used to.
"When the ball comes down from its apex, it fades to the returner's left, whereas a lefty kicks the ball and it fades to the returner's right," Locke said. "They're very accustomed to dealing with right-footed punts, that it's something that can be a lot different for them. They have to flip everything in their mind because the ball is going to come down differently. Some returners don't think it's a big deal, but some returners and a lot of coaches think it is a big deal."
The three first-round Vikings picks will get most of the attention when discussion about the 2013 Vikings rookie class is evaluated, but, like Blair Walsh a year earlier, the Vikings were able to add another special teams weapon on the final day of draft weekend and the belief is that the sky is the limit for Locke's long-term potential.
"I'm still learning new things with technique and, fortunately, we have guys who are willing to bust their butts during practice to give us more time to work on things and improve," Locke said. "I'm a lot happier with my game right now than I was a couple of months ago and I expect that I will be better next year than I am now. That's my goal – just keep improving and be consistent. If I can do that, good things will happen."
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 taking off after ‘heart to heart'
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