Minnesota Vikings punter Jeff Locke may have been one of the most criticized players on the team over the past couple seasons. The team drafted him in the fifth round in the 2013, which many people thought was too high to be taking a punter.
That put high expectations on him from the first game of his rookie season. There was never any question that Locke had a big leg and the ability to be a great punter in the NFL, but he has struggled with inconsistency throughout a majority of his career. He would pin a team inside the 10 with one punt, but then kick the next one out the back of the end zone.
This preseason, however, things have seemed to click for the punter and his game has clearly improved. He credits that to different things, but first and foremost it’s his experience on the field.
“I think it’s just kind of a cumulative experience so to speak. I kind of have seen all the situations I’m going to be in these past couple years, we’ve got a year under our belt at TCF – kind of know what kind of ball I need to hit in those conditions, like that storm the other night we had there. I’ve been working really hard on that plus-50 punt because I had way too many touchbacks last year on that, which really hurt us when we needed to pin them deep. I think focusing on a couple different things and trying to stay more consistent.”
When he refers to a plus-50 kick, he is referencing an Austrailian-style kick where the kicker will put backspin on the ball in hopes that it will either bounce straight up in the air or bounce backwards. It is used when they are trying to pin a team within the 20-yard line. The hope is that by using this sort of punt the ball will stay out of the end zone.
Locke has been able to use this kick a lot more in games this preseason, which is a big reason why he has been able to pin more teams near the goal line. He gives a lot of credit there to the offense because it means they were able to get away from their own end zone before being forced to punt.
“When we’re using the plus-50, it means the offense is rolling and I’m able to put the defense in a great position, usually,” he said. “So the more I use that punt over a regular punt the better.
“I’ve definitely gotten more plus-50 work than I’ve had in the past and those are always fun to hit because you get to pin them deep. And it’s always fun to see the defense go to work back there and we’ve had a couple games where the punter’s had to punt out of his own end zone, which is always tough. So it’s definitely been a lot of help to have the offense rolling like it has been.”
Related: Locke kicking around a new punt
Locke’s 41.9-yard punting average is just inside the top half of the league this preseason, but nine punts inside the 20-yard line is tied for first.
Another thing that has helped with Locke’s improved numbers is the play by the other players on special teams around him, especially Marcus Sherels. Sherels is a very talented punt returner but he might even be better as a gunner covering punts.
Having a player like Sherels on the punt team with him makes Locke a lot more comfortable and confident because he knows that even if he doesn’t kick a perfect punt, a player like Sherels can make up for it.
“It definitely does help to have guys like Marcus Sherels,” Locke said. “I think he’s the best gunner in the league. Just watching him on film, watching other guys on film, and what he can do in the return game too. Having a guy like that, even when I might have, like maybe an Aussie doesn’t have the hang time I want, still having Marcus down there, he’s going to beat his guy single press. I mean that’s going to happen, so I think having him and a lot of the other guys on punt team is just great.”
Last week Locke’s weight-bearing leg got rolled up on and he was forced to miss a punt a little later in the game. It was concerning for a lot of people because there really isn’t a backup punter, so the team had placekicker Blair Walsh go out and punt for him.
Locke returned later in the game so everything appeared to be fine but when asked about the injury, Locke declined comment.
“Injury,” he said. “Can’t talk about it.”
Everything should be fine in terms of his condition, but it should be interesting to see if that injury effects his performance in what has been a very good preseason thus far.