Minnesota Vikings punter Jeff Locke practices punting during the afternoon practice on the third day of the Minnesota Vikings training camp at Minnesota State University in Mankato on Sunday, July 31, 2016. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
MANKATO, Minn. — Jeff Locke is the only punter in Vikings training camp, but that doesn’t mean his job is secure.
The Vikings looked at two undrafted free-agent punters during their rookie minicamp in May and considered bringing one to camp. So far that hasn’t happened, but Locke knows another punter could be just a phone call away.
“(Special teams coach Mike) Priefer told me that I’m battling every other guy on the street every day,” Locke said.
Priefer doesn’t deny that. He said Monday the pressure is on his fourth-year punter to perform.
“He’s got to have a good camp here or we’ll end up bringing in competition,” Priefer said. “But for right now, it’s Jeff.”
For the rookie minicamp, the Vikings brought in Taylor Symmank from Texas Tech and Nick O’Toole from West Virginia. They invited Symmank to stay an extra day to take a physical and have stayed in touch with him.
Locke had a net average of 37.8 yards last season, which ranked him 30th in the NFL and more than two yards less than the 40-yard average Priefer wants to see. Still, Priefer said Locke looked good in offseason drills, which is why he isn’t facing competition just yet during drills at Minnesota State Mankato.
“We went through the spring hoping Jeff would have a good spring, and he really did. So we decided we were going to go with one (punter) right now,” Priefer said.
When Locke was taken in the fifth round of the 2013 draft out of UCLA, the Vikings released Chris Kluwe after eight seasons. Locke had a net average of 39.2 as a rookie, but that has decreased each of the past two seasons, down to 38.7 in 2014 and then 37.8 last year.
The reason for his decline since his rookie year is not hard to figure out. The Vikings played home games in 2014 and ’15 outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium, where inclement weather often hampered punts.
“It was obviously very difficult to kick at TCF, but in some of the games I definitely could have kicked better,” Locke said.
The Vikings are moving back indoors to U.S. Bank Stadium this season, so Locke will need to show improvement to keep his bosses happy.
“He needs to be a much more consistent performer,” Priefer said. “(In training camp on Sunday), he had a couple of good punts and a couple of punts that weren’t very good. He needs to be the most consistent guy in the league, (a guy) we can rely on, especially when we’re going indoors.
“When we punted indoors for three games last year, he had outstanding games and he really helped us with field position. So 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. He’s got to continue to improve as he goes outside.”
Locke had six punts for a net average of 41.0 yards in three indoor games last season — at Detroit, Atlanta and Arizona. The other 13 games were outdoors.
The Vikings have nine indoor regular-season games this season. That still leaves seven outdoors.
“In the end, it’s just about being consistent every game,” Locke said.
Locke’s gross average last year was 41.6, which ranked 32nd and last in the NFL. But Priefer doesn’t pay too much attention to that stat since his philosophy is to kick the ball “a little bit higher and a little bit shorter” than most teams to allow his punt coverage team to be in good position.
“We never want to outkick the coverage,” Locke said. “I never want to hit a 60-yard bomb with no hang time. We’d much rather have a hang-time ball our guys can cover.”
Minnesota allowed just 5.2 yards per punt return last season, which ranked the team fifth in the NFL.