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Vikings Punter Locke Tweaks Approach, Boosts Confidence for 2016

MANKATO, Minn. — Jeff Locke has noticed a different guy when watching film these days.

Sure, it's still him in the No. 18 Vikings jersey. But the punter's strong kicks have given him a new confidence entering his fourth season in the league.

"It's just the way I've been hitting the ball," Locke said. "In the spring and in this camp, it's night and day from my film that I've had in some of the last offseasons."

The Vikings are hoping for a bounce back season from the former UCLA standout who admittedly struggled at times last season.

Locke averaged 41.6 yards per punt, which was down from the mark of 44.2 yards he had in each of his first two seasons in the league.

The 26-year-old spent the past two seasons punting in home games outdoors on the University of Minnesota campus, a venue known for swirling winds. Locke said there was plenty of chatter with opposing punters before games, and that the same punters would say after the game that they were glad to get out of there as quickly as possible.

"It was probably, mentally, my most challenging season just based on the conditions we played in," Locke said. "I felt like I had a lot of really good games and maybe five games that I needed to be a little more consistent in.

"It was definitely the biggest challenge of my life (as a punter)," he added.

Said Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer: "If you go back and look at it, nobody wants to punt at TCF with the weather and the winds we get there. There was not one punter I talked to that wanted to punt at TCF."

Locke noted that the weather conditions seemed to be worse on game days during the second season outside than the first. Either way, the combination of gusty winds and chilly temperatures didn't exactly measure up for a great day of kicking.

"Some of it was the wind, some of it was the cold," Locke said. "Whenever it gets cold, that ball just gets a lot harder to kick, and you have a lot less room for error.

"I thought our punt team overall did really well there," he added. "There were definitely some games I could have been a little more consistent in."

Locke won't have to punt outdoors at home this season because the Vikings will play inside at sparkling new U.S. Bank Stadium. He excelled in three indoor road games last season (games at Atlanta, Arizona and Detroit), booming six punts for 276 yards, good for 46 yards per punt.

It's a measure of success that has Locke optimistic for the upcoming season.

"A total of six punts in three games," Locke said. "But I hit all six of them really well, those six punts were some of my best of the year."

Added Priefer: "If he can translate that and continue to get stronger and better when we go to U.S. Bank and when we go to Detroit for indoor games, we've got something."

Locke punted inside U.S. Bank Stadium this offseason and felt "very comfortable" with the atmosphere. Like most punters, he said he'd prefer to kick indoors with no elements rather than have wind potentially help a kick.

Priefer recently said he wanted Locke's net punting average to be above 40 yards after it was at 37.8 yards in 2015. (A punter's net average subtracts the punt return yardage from the distance of the kick.)

To help boost that stat, Locke said he's tinkered with his technique with punts when the line of scrimmage is inside the 50-yard line. Locke said he will still use an Australian-style rugby kick that he used since college, but added he's working on perfecting the way the end-over-end punt comes back to his gunners.

Locke referenced the kick like using a pitching wedge to bring the ball back toward the hole.

"I'm trying to make it backspin, so if it hits, then it bounces backwards," said Locke, who added his leg feels stronger than in the past. "And I can also control the distance better.

"Rather than the spinner, which is going to get messed up by the wind and do a bunch of different things, I can really control how far that ball goes," he added.

View images from the Friday, August 5 practice at Verizon Vikings Training Camp.

The old way of trying to pin opponents deep was the 'Coffin Corner' approach, a style perfected by former Vikings punter Greg Coleman in which a punter aims directly out of bounds as close to the pylon as possible.

Coleman said his style never put him near the top of the league in average, a stat he believes is overanalyzed for punters.

Both Priefer and Coleman said Locke's job isn't to boom the ball 65 yards that will allow for a lengthy return. Instead, Locke is primarily asked to loft a ball high in the air and let Minnesota's coverage team go to work.

Coleman said that as long as Locke is helping his team win, that should be the only stat that matters.

"There's been a lot of scrutiny about his average not being near the top," Coleman said. "Leading the league in average and net doesn't necessarily make you one of the best punters.

"What makes you one of the better punters is if you're doing the things effective for your team," he added. "There's more to being a successful punter than numbers. But more than anything else, when your guys on the punt team have the confidence to know that when you're called on to do you task, that you're going to complete it. That's a successful punter."

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