Vikings’ backup kicking game in place

The Vikings’ backups are ready in case any of the specialists are injured during a game, like what happened Monday night with the Chargers, but one replacement process would be especially difficult with a left-footed Jeff Locke.

Just like the Vikings have emergency, worst-case-scenario options at quarterback if both of their game-day active signal-callers are hurt, they also have players on call on the sidelines if one of their specialists is injured during a game.

That scenario came into play Monday night when San Diego Chargers punter Mike Scifres suffered a broken clavicle when Branden Bolden of the New England Patriots blocked his punt. Nick Novak, the Chargers’ kicker, had to take over punting duties and showed just how different those roles can be.

As you might expect, punter Jeff Locke is the Vikings’ backup kicker if Blair Walsh were hurt during a game.

“He’d definitely kick off like he did last year for a couple of weeks, and then place-kicking, maybe you’d go for it, or go for two, but we’ll see,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “It’s tough holding for a lefty, especially when you haven’t practiced for it.”

The Vikings like Locke being a left-footed punter because it creates a different spin on the ball for punt returners. But when it comes to kicking field goals, Locke being left-footed creates a big set of problems, especially for the holder.

“It would be tough to get field goals made or anything long distance. I know he kicked a little bit in college so that would help,” Walsh said of Locke. “He’s very adept at kicking and I think he would do a good job kicking off if I was ever injured in the middle of a game. I don’t know what we’d do with field goals. I think he would still hit the extra points – we would attempt those – but we would probably be going for it on the fourth down.”

Long snapper Cullen Loeffler might not have to adjust what he does too much, but he knows it would difficult for others in the process.

“It certainly makes it harder when you’re holding for a left-footer because most holders have held for righties, at least ours have,” Loeffler said. “It would make it a little different. Jeff has done a great job for us when we needed him to step in and do kickoffs for a little while when Blair was a little bit banged up.”

But what if Loeffler were hurt in a game? He’s been such a reliable long snapper during his 11-year career.

That duty would fall on backup linebacker Audie Cole, who worked on that craft more during training camp than he does during the season.

“It’s not like I’m a full-time long snapper. I’m not like the most accurate, but I think I can get the job done when I need to. I just hope I don’t sail one,” Cole said.

Cole was only a backup long snapper in college and high school and said he has never been a “live” long snapper, but he has been practicing it since he was a kid, when his dad “made him” start doing it because his dad also did it.

Loeffler has given Cole advice from time to time, telling him if he was applying too much pressure on the ball with one hand or another.

If ever needed, there is one more backup piece to the field goal process in place. While Loeffler, Locke and Walsh practice the snap, hold and kick thousands of times a year while the rest of the team is practicing offense and defense, backup quarterback Christian Ponder is also the backup holder.

“It’s a big difference. We work a lot with Jeff on our holding and he’s done such a good job,” Walsh said. “If you’re going to throw in a guy like Christian who hasn’t held in a live game in like six or seven years, you’ve got to look at it that way in that it would just be a rust factor on his part, but Prief does a good job. He gets snaps with Christian every week and makes sure Cullen and Christian get some work in. There’s a lot of special teams coaches that might not do that or might not think about that, but we make sure we’re prepared.”

Because the Vikings have been relatively successful with the kicking battery of Loeffler long snapping, Locke holding and Walsh kicking – last week’s game withstanding, when Walsh missed two field goals for the first time in his career – fans tend to think the process is almost automatic.

“Definitely not. It’s not automatic,” Walsh said. “There’s little nuances of the game that you don’t realize, whether it’s laces turned one way, that could throw off the kicking.”

Even Loeffler, who has been nearly flawless in long snapping during his 11 years with the Vikings and made the NFL all-fundamentals team for his consistency, cautions himself almost daily not to take it for granted.

“The truth is that it’s never old hat. Each and every year, especially to sustain a job in the NFL, you have to treat it as if it’s your rookie year, where you’re constantly feeling on edge,” he said. “Every day is a new day, you try not to ever get complacent, and it’s a hard thing to do. One day you can be drinking wine and the next day stomping grapes in a hurry. You certainly want to be drinking the wine.”

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