Post-Kluwe Vikings confident in rookie punter

    2013-08-03 12:23

(Updates with rest of story.)
AP Pro Football Writer

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - The Minnesota Vikings still have a UCLA-educated punter with an erudite degree, one whose background was in soccer before trying his leg at another sport.

This guy, though, doesn't play bass guitar in a grunge band. He only tweets a handful of times per week. He probably won't publicize his political views.

Jeff Locke has replaced Chris Kluwe, and the newcomer couldn't be much more different than his predecessor, despite their common alma mater. But if there's any position in professional football where pizazz is optional, it's the punter. Kluwe's outsized personality was the exception and, well, part of the reason Locke was drafted by the Vikings in the first place.

``He is a very mature young man,'' special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said, adding: ``I felt like he was a young man who could handle the adversity, handle some pressure and handle the fact that he is going to be our punter this season.''

Locke, who was taken in the fifth round, was also targeted for his ability to hold on extra points and field goals, an equally important task on any team. So far during training camp, Locke estimated he's split his work time evenly between holding and punting.

``We take holding very seriously,'' Locke said. ``It's not like just a side job.''

Kluwe had a lot of side jobs, from the rock group ``Tripping Icarus'' he helped form to the commentary he wrote and the speeches he made last fall in support of gay marriage rights. After Kluwe stuck a note to his jersey touting former punter Ray Guy's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for one game last season, covering the Hall of Fame emblem on his jersey and drawing a fine from the NFL, Priefer said he'd grown tired of such distractions and urged Kluwe to focus on his on-field duties.

``I'm just a little more private with the way I handle things,'' Locke said. ``I'll get involved with the community when the season comes around, on Tuesdays on our off days and stuff like that, so hopefully I'll get to know the fans a little bit that way.''

So no moonlighting in the music world, either?

``No. No. You do not want to hear me play in a band. It would not be pretty,'' Locke said.

Kluwe majored in history and political science at UCLA. Locke studied economics. Whenever his football career is over, he plans to get his MBA and pursue a job in financial advising or wealth management. But he's got a lot of kicking to do before it's time to even think about that.

Punting wasn't on Locke's radar until his freshman year in high school at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Ariz., when his friends from middle school persuaded him to join the team. The first game he'd ever watched was the first one he played in with the freshman team. His leg strength was enough to land him on the varsity soon after, and his life as a punter was off and kicking.

``They saw a guy, kind of raw, who had the power. I had to slowly find my technique over the offseason after that,'' said Locke, who credited participation in summer kicking camps that helped refine his technique.

Between his junior and senior year, he found himself with scholarship offers from Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Stanford, UCLA and Wisconsin. With numerous honors by his name, including Parade All-American, he became a Bruin.

He was first team All-Pac-12 last season after pinning 35 punts inside the 20-yard line and launching 22 kicks of 50-plus yards. His gross average for his career was 44.2 yards per punt.

The Vikings trusted Locke enough to not bother bringing in another punter for training camp competition. Priefer has helped Locke tweak some of his punting technique through extensive video review. He has even been practicing some Australian-style end-over-end boots for longer distances. Locke's biggest challenge this month, though, will be developing that fine-point rhythm with long snapper Cullen Loeffler and kicker Blair Walsh when he's holding.

``He's got to get used to holding the ball the way I like it, the way I like the ball tilted, how fast I get to the ball compared to somebody else,'' Walsh said. ``Even though it's a little bit of milliseconds off, it's still different. He's also got to get used to Cullen snapping and the way he throws the ball, so there's a bunch of moving parts you don't necessarily see right away.''

Last year, Walsh was in the same situation. Drafted in the sixth round, he prompted the team to release veteran Ryan Longwell. And he wound up in the Pro Bowl as a rookie. So there's precedent for immediate success, and the Vikings are hopeful they have another budding standout on their roster.

``The biggest thing about Jeff is even though he's young is that he's very mature,'' Priefer said. ``He's a pro.''


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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