Ben Goessling ESPN Staff Writer
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Vikings punter Jeff Locke entered training camp needing a consistent performance to avoid the team looking for another option for the 2016 season. Halfway through the preseason, despite a punt he saw returned for a touchdown and a pair of touchbacks that stemmed from him kicking balls too far, Locke seems to be on his way to making the team.
Special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer sounded confident in Locke on Sunday, saying the fourth-year punter has kicked the ball well since the start of training camp.
“The big test is in the games, and I think he’s responded very well,” Priefer said. “We did have the two touchbacks, but we’ve also pinned our opponent inside the 20 seven times in two games. Some of that is [punting in opposing territory], and others have been, he’s really hit the ball quite well. Other than the one glitch we had against Cincinnati late in the game, we’ve covered punts pretty well.”
Locke’s 61-yard punt against the Bengals was returned for an 80-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, and coach Mike Zimmer said after the game that Locke had kicked the ball too far. That was the problem, Priefer said, on the touchbacks Locke had in Seattle on Thursday night, too.
“He hit them almost too well,” Priefer said. “He’s got to maybe drop it a little bit higher, get a little bit more hang time, a little bit less distance. Those are things we’ve been working on, and to be quite honest, we didn’t have a chance to work on them most of the time last year, because of the venue [TCF Bank Stadium] we were kicking and punting in. We focused more on that all spring long, all summer long, and we’ll continue to do that during the season.”
For the preseason, Locke’s net average is just 36.1 yards per punt, but he’ll get to kick indoors in the Vikings’ next two games at U.S. Bank Stadium. Though the two punters the Vikings worked out in rookie camp — West Virginia’s Nick O’Toole and Texas Tech’s Taylor Symmank — remain unsigned, and probably would get the first calls if the team needed a punter, it doesn’t seem as though the Vikings are headed in that direction at the moment.
“He’s got a great leg swing, and he’s coming back stronger than he’s been before,” Priefer said. “I’m looking forward to Jeff continuing on here, now that we’re going indoors, too. I think we had two really good outdoor games, although it wasn’t very windy, but I’m looking forward to going indoors and seeing what he can do with directional punting, as well.”