It came as a surprise to few people that the Vikings used a Day Three pick in April’s draft on a punter. Whether you liked him or hated him, former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe became a lightning rod for controversy, although the team insisted that the drafting of Jeff Locke had nothing to do with Kluwe’s advocacy of controversial causes like same-sex marriage. Considering that Kluwe was 22nd in the league in punting average and 17th in net average, a case could be made that it was his lack of production, combined with his veteran salary, that led to his ouster from the franchise.
Another line of thinking was that, given the success the Vikings had by replacing reliable Ryan Longwell, who struggled on kickoff distance, with rookie Blair Walsh a year ago – with similar circumstances of Longwell being released a week after Walsh was drafted – that the Vikings were using the draft to address special teams in hopes of not having to do it again for years to come.
However, head coach Leslie Frazier said Tuesday at his press conference that, while he isn’t overly concerned about having a rookie punter on the field, he and special teams coach Mike Priefer spent a lot of pre-draft time discussing their options – realizing that a rookie kicker is much different from a rookie punter.
“I’m not nervous, because we talked about this prior to the draft,” Frazier said. “It was one of the things we talked about extensively prior to the draft because it’s something different with a placekicker than a punter when you talk about coming into the NFL and performing. We believe that Jeff is going to do a great job for us. He was an outstanding collegiate kicker and we’re expecting him to be an excellent punter for us in the NFL.”
The role of the punter in the Vikings’ way of conducting their business is different than a lot of teams. With a run-first offense and a young quarterback who has yet to emerge as a force, playing the field position game is critical for how the Vikings operate. With a bend-but-don’t-break defense, forcing opponents to put together drives of 10 plays or more is vital to that success. Frazier is confident that Locke can get the job done.
“He’ll just have to continue to grow in the preseason and we’re counting on him to do a good job for us,” Frazier said. “A lot of what we do is field position football. We’ve talked about it in our internal meetings. We’re structured a little bit different than some NFL teams. We win a lot based on field position, not turning the ball over, running the ball and playing good defense. Special teams is a big part of it. That position for us has a lot of weight, but we are confident Jeff can get the job done.”
Locke turned some heads and drew some loud ovations from the crowds attending training camp practices. At one practice, he hit back-to-back punts of more than 70 yards, which Frazier praised. But the key for the coaching staff is that Locke develops more consistency to his game and can back up a great punt with another … and another … and another.
“It’s great for those moments, but what you always want to see is consistency,” Frazier said. “It’s great when that happens in practice, but can you consistently perform at that level? That’s what you are measured by in our league. Those splash plays at any position, that’s fine, but can you consistently get your job done. That’s what we’ll be looking for from him. If he booms one, can he come back and consistently get another good punt off?”
One of the biggest hurdles NFL players face coming out of college is the difference in speed of the game. It’s almost a cliché, but it is a legitimate concern. Everything happens faster in the NFL than it does in college. A completion in the college game is an interception in the NFL. The punter position is no different, especially for aggressive specials teams coaches who will be looking to bring the heat on Locke and force him to get rid of the ball quicker than he might like.
“Those guys coming off the edge at our level versus what he saw in college could be a little bit different,” Frazier said. “Some of the schemes that people are going to use will be a little different. The way they’re going to attack him as a rookie punter will be a little bit different than what he saw as a senior or a junior at UCLA.”
The Vikings expect Locke to be a marked man when opposing special teams coaches prepare to bring the heat against him on punts. The Vikings are doing their part to attempt to replicate what Locke can expect to see (or not expect to see) when the regular season started and they are looking to use training camp, the preseason games and practices in the three weeks prior to the start of the regular season as a springboard that they hope can create consistency, as well as Locke’s understanding that failure isn’t an option for a team that thrives on playing the field position game.
“We know there are some things going to be thrown at him,” Frazier said. “We’re going to put him in some situations – at least we’re trying to – in practice to make him have to do some things under pressure. We expect him to be under some pressure, but the speed of the game and the magnitude, the weight of every punt (is important). We had some situations in our game Friday night that could turn a ball game. We wanted to go through some of that with him. We had Coach Priefer talk him through the impact of every one of those punts on our football team because of the field position aspect of it.”
There are still plenty of unknowns surrounding Locke as the regular season nears. He will be taking over a position that Kluwe manned for the last eight years – a lifetime in the NFL, but Frazier and Priefer are hopeful and cautiously optimistic Locke can succeed. It worked with Walsh, who attempted his last kick of the “2012 season” at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. They’re hoping lightning with strike twice with the thunder-footed Locke.
Rookie middle linebacker Michael Mauti wasn’t expected to practice Tuesday afternoon because of a sore left knee that was surgically repaired last year.
DT Christian Ballard remains away with a “personal matter,” according to Frazier.
Most of the Vikings’ starters are expected to play into the second quarter Friday night in Buffalo, but Adrian Peterson likely won’t be among them. Nine of the offensive starters played only two snaps for the Vikings last Friday against the Houston Texans, and Peterson didn’t suit up in that game.
CBs Xavier Rhodes (hamstring) and A.J. Jefferson (ankle) are expected to play Friday, as is Desmond Bishop (groin). None of them played last week because of injuries, and neither did Jacob Lacey, who is out two to four weeks with a knee injury.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.