The preseason opener couldn’t have gone much different for a pair of second-year players on opposite ends of the punting game.
Jeff Locke, the Minnesota Vikings’ 2013 fifth-round draft choice, was unsteady with his punts. He got plenty of chances but averaged only 38.9 yards on eight punts with a 36.8-yard net.
“It wasn’t the wind. It wasn’t the weather – it was a beautiful night,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “Part of it was his drop or his approach, things we’ve been working on. He’s been hitting the ball really well in training camp. We’ve got to study the tape and say, ‘What did we do wrong here’ and not overanalyze it, as we all tend to do here, especially during the season.”
Locke had a long punt of 47 yards and put only one of his eight inside the 20-yard line, but he also wasn’t helped on one punt when Shaun Prater fielded it on the 1-yard line and wisely threw it back into the field of play before his momentum carried him into the end zone. But Jabari Price dragged his foot in the end zone before establishing himself in the field of play for a touchback.
Even so, Priefer said Locke’s performance wouldn’t be “acceptable” during the season.
“I think the more experience, maybe he’s still nervous, but you’re not nervous as long. I think Jeff is going to be just fine,” Priefer said.
On the other end of punt was Adam Thielen. After a year on the practice squad, the second-year player from Minnesota State University, Mankato, continued an impressive training camp and extended it into the preseason. While he had a 15-yard third-down catch, it was his punt returning that stood out.
In veteran fashion, Thielen may have been happy with his 17.3-yard average on three returns, but it was the one mistake that he remembered most.
“There’s some things I know that I’m going to see on film that I wish I had a couple of them back,” he said. “It was fun to be out there. It’s been since college since I’ve got in a game situation in that (role). It was fun to be out there and I look forward to the next game.”
“There was some good blocks set up that the guys put me in a great position and I didn’t capitalize on a couple of them.”
Priefer saw a vastly improved performance form Thielen’s rookie training camp, but the special teams coordinator also knew exactly the mistake Thielen was referencing.
“He just didn’t set it up like how we taught him to set it up. But we’ll go back and we’ll all have him understand why. But it’s all coachable,” Priefer said. “He did a really solid job. Guys blocked their tails off for him. He was one move away on that second punt return – I think it was the second or third one for (what might have been) a touchdown.”
Last year, Priefer hesitated to put Thielen in for punt returns. He wasn’t sure the receiver would handle them securely. With starting punt returner Marcus Sherels out with a hamstring injury on Friday, Thielen was on center stage in that precarious position and showed like a competent veteran.
“A year ago I wouldn’t have put him out there. He’s come leaps and bounds,” said Priefer, who was asked about the possibility of Thielen contending with the sure-handed Sherels for the lead job.
“Tonight didn’t hurt; tonight actually helped a lot. The more he does it, the more reps he gets in the preseason, the more comfortable we’ll all feel about it.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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