EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Rookie punter Jeff Locke released the butterflies in his first regular-season NFL game last week.
The Minnesota Vikings are thankful the first-game jitters are out of the way for Locke with the Chicago Bears up next.
Chicago returner Devin Hester has long been trouble for Minnesota. He has four career returns for touchdowns against the Vikings, including three as a punt returner, and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Hester is the best returner Priefer’s teams have ever faced.
“There’s no one even close,” Priefer said. “He’s in an elite class. He’s in a class by himself because of what he’s done in his past. People have asked me this week, even during the offseason, ‘Has he slowed down a bit?’ I don’t think so. I think he’s just as dangerous as he’s ever been.”
History isn’t on Locke’s side.
Hester owns the NFL record for career return touchdowns (17) and most punt return touchdowns (12). In his career against the Vikings, the three-time All-Pro Hester has averaged 27.4 yards on kickoff returns and 14.3 yards on punt returns.
“You’ve got to respect him,” Locke said. “He’s one of the best guys in the league, if not the best return guy. So you’ve got to be able to focus and do your thing and not give him a whole lot of space to make moves in the open field.”
Facing Hester can add a level of anxiety for a punter, but nothing like Locke was facing last week. Locke admitted he was anxious for his first game and it altered his steps on punts and, ultimately, the hang time he was seeking.
“I think I did just kind of let the whole NFL thing get to me,” Locke said. “First game, kind of didn’t focus on my technique the way I needed to. I feel like that’s kind of behind me and I can move on from there. … You kind of really want to kill the ball and as a punter, you get in that mindset and you’re done.”
Locke had five punts for a 42.2-yard net average and a 34.8-yard gross average. He ranks 25th in the league in gross average and 30th in net average after one week. Missing his preferred hang time, Locke allowed returns on all five punts.
“Hang time was not anywhere where it needed to be to help these guys cover down there,” Locke said.
Priefer has been pleased with the way Locke responded in practice this week and Locke said it’s been his best week of practice with the Vikings.
“He got some confidence back which is good and that’s what he needed,” Priefer said. “I think he was a bit nervous on Sunday. Even though we were indoors, I think it was just under the lights in the NFL for the first time. I’m not making excuses for him, nor would I, and he wouldn’t do that himself…I think you just have to go back to what’s made you a good punter. His fundamentals, his leg strength, believing in his drop and believing in his leg swing, and that’s what we emphasized to him this week.”
Locke has a chance to change Minnesota’s luck against Hester and will be looking to corral Hester the same way the Cincinnati Bengals did last week. Hester had two punt returns for one total yard and one kickoff return for 31 yards.
Chicago has made Hester a returner only this year, after years of trying to find a way he can contribute to the offense. With his ability as a returner, he can still make an impact.
“He’s got better vision than any returner I’ve ever had to prepare for,” Priefer said. “He can see things long before they happen and he can set things up and set up the coverage team and he can see what’s going to happen before anyone else can. He’s unique and very rare in that instance.”
Priefer won’t be instructing Locke to just kick the ball away from Hester, either.
“If you tell them, ‘I want it out of bounds, it’s Devin Hester,’ next thing you know it goes 22 yards and you don’t want that either,” Priefer said. “So there’s a fine line between how much coaching you do in terms of how much direction you want to use. To me if it’s high and it’s good hang time and decent distance, we should be OK.”