At a time when one of the primary talking points among Minnesota Vikings fans is fueled by media speculation that Blair Walsh may be kicking for his Vikings life on Sunday, there is no questioning the job that punter Jeff Locke is doing.
At the quarter pole of the season, Locke is averaging 43 yards a punt (a yard-and-a-half better than last season) – and has a net punt average of 40.6 yards (almost three yards better than last year and a career best by more than a yard.
While Walsh is struggling to find his way in the kicking game, Locke believes he is on one of the best stretches of his career.
“I’m kind of in that sweet spot right now between hang time and distance,” Locke said. “We definitely preach not to outkick the coverage here in Minnesota. I feel like right now, I’m really hitting the ball well and making good contact. I’m doing my best to keep working hard and keep that going.”
How teams approach the punting game is very different. Some teams just let their punters go bombs-away on their kicks, while others employ a strategy of kicking the ball high, sacrificing distance to allow the coverage team to get downfield.
Locke’s punting average is near the bottom of the league with a 43.0-yard average, which ranks 26th among punters. But, of his 23 punts, only five of them have been returned for a total of 11 yards, which is why he’s averaging a net of 40.6 yards, which ranks him 15th in the league.
He’s finding a nice mix in between kicking the ball as far as possible while still maintain the coaching philosophy of how the Vikings address the punting game.
“Almost any punter can dial between both height and distance,” Locke said. “It typically comes down to a special teams preference by the coach and what type of philosophy they have. Some have the belief that a punter just bangs the ball as far as he can and let his guys chase down the returner. Our philosophy is the punt the ball high and surround the returner so we greatly limit the options for returning punts. There are different philosophies and we go with the latter.”
Perhaps nobody is happier to be in U.S. Bank Stadium than Locke, who was no fan of TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota. He hated kicking there because, unlike most outdoor NFL stadiums that are constructed with wind and aerodynamic considerations, TCF Bank Stadium gave no consideration to such things.
The field wasn’t laid out in the typical north-south orientation standard for most fields to reduce the problems created by sunlight. TCF ran east to west and had distinct features like a closed end by the scoreboard and areas that jut out that creates shadow issues and strange crosswinds that were never predictable.
But, there is no love lost for the conditions at TCF. He’s at a new bank now and loving it and believes his time playing outside on a field not constructed for ideal NFL conditions was helpful for him in the long term.
“The conditions there were difficult because of the unique layout of the stadium,” Locke said. “The wind would swirl and it could be blowing in one direction in one end zone and literally be blowing in the opposite direction in the other end zone. It could be calm in one end and gusting in the other. We look at it now as a learning experience to be put in situations where you had to be aware at all times of the conditions because they could change so fast. Going through those two years at TCF has made me a better punter. It was difficult in the moment, but now I can walk in most stadiums and be confident that I’ve faced that situation before and be prepared for it.”
At a time when the special teams are a hot-button topic with the local media and fans alike, there isn’t much wrong with what Locke is doing. In fact, he feels the past few weeks have been the best of his professional career.
“This is definitely the most consistent I’ve been in my entire career,” Locke said. “In the past, I could have a really good day, but there might be one sub-par punt. The last few games have been extremely consistent where I’m sticking to the philosophy of putting hang time on the ball, but getting some better distance along with it. It’s been a lot of fun this year and I just want to keep it going.”