MANKATO, Minn. — It didn’t take Minnesota Vikings rookie punter Jeff Locke long to show how he’s different from Chris Kluwe — and it’s not in his tweeting habits.
Early in training camp, Locke displayed a punting technique that is growing in popularity in the NFL but wasn’t used by Kluwe, Minnesota’s punter for the last eight seasons and the franchise leader with a 44.4-yard gross punting average.
Training camp spectators well used to Kluwe’s deep spiraling punts got the first chance to see Locke’s end-over-end style, the emerging style borrowed from Australian Rules football when trying to land punts deep in opponents’ territory.
“When we’re punting and trying to pin the opponent deep, you can control the distance better with that end-over-end style punt and if it bounces, 80 percent of the time it bounces backward and doesn’t go into the end zone,” Locke said.
One of Kluwe’s strengths in his career was his directional punting and he’s the all-time Vikings leader in punts down inside the 20-yard line. Locke used to use the same approach, but witnessed the effectiveness of the end-over-end style and decided to teach himself the style.
Locke followed Aaron Perez at UCLA who punted end-over-end in inside-the-20 situations. Locke watched film and learned how to use the style, but still didn’t trust himself to use it in games.
One more offseason of work and two years of trying to perfect the style, Locke finally unleashed it and it’s now his preferred style of trying to pin opponents deep. He had 60 punts downed inside the 20-yard line over his final two seasons at UCLA.
“I was getting frustrated because it’s a fine line trying to hit a regular punt that stops,” Locke said. “You have to be either really good at directional or have great, great touch on the ball. I just felt I could be a lot more consistent if I developed that end over-end-style that would limit touchbacks.”
Locke knew he’d be able to continue the style when Minnesota drafted him in the fifth round of April’s draft. Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was with another left-footed punter — like Locke — who used the end-over-end style in Kansas City with Dustin Colquitt.
When Priefer coached Dustin’s brother, Britton, in Denver, Britton’s summer homework was to work with Dustin and teach himself the style. The Colquitts are considered two of the better punters in the league and masters at stopping punts inside the 20-yard line.
As Priefer works with Locke in his first training camp and makes minor changes to his approach, the two have watched film of Dustin Colquitt. Locke was already well-versed in Colquitt’s style because Locke used video of Colquitt while teaching himself the style.
“What happens sometimes when you don’t use that style of kick, you try to mess with your drop and mess with the force of your leg swing when you’re inside of 50 yards and when you do that it’s really hard to control,” Priefer said. “With the Aussie-type punt you can still have a full leg swing, it’s just dependent on how you drop it. It’s all how it comes out of his hand. You see the ball come out end over end and now you’re trying to kick the ball hard and it’s just not going to go as far because of the way you dropped it. And when it does hit, it hopefully is going to bounce back for us, either hit the returner or we can down it inside the 10.”
Along with pinning opponents deep, the hope is for a reduction in touchbacks as well. Even as Kluwe struggled somewhat last year, he still was excellent in avoiding touchbacks, finishing in a tie for second in the league last year with just two touchbacks.
“He didn’t do the Aussie, but he was very good going in,” Priefer said. “He was a little inconsistent at times, like any punter, but he didn’t use it because he didn’t feel comfortable. He had never used it, but he knew how to control the force of his leg swing and how to drop it and that sort of thing. And the good thing about Chris was he didn’t kick touchbacks. That was huge and Jeff’s not going to kick them either.”
Maybe there are some similarities between Locke and Kluwe.