MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — The kicker and the punter on any team had better get along, with all the time the specialists spend together and apart from the rest of the players.
Blair Walsh and Jeff Locke started their friendship well in advance, as high school prospects some six years before they ever knew they’d become NFL teammates with the Minnesota Vikings. Their chemistry began at a Los Angeles-based kicking camp run by former UCLA star Chris Sailer.
“I’ve seen those pictures back in the day that will kind of make all you guys laugh. I had a bowl cut. He had blowout haircut. That was a lot of fun back then,” Locke said, laughing. “It was good knowing someone coming in and somebody I had kicked with before.”
Through Sailer’s program, which helped Locke land a scholarship at UCLA and Walsh the same with Georgia, the duo got connected with tutor Ignacio Brache, who kicked at California while Sailer was at UCLA in the late 1990s. Walsh and Locke spent more than a month in the Los Angeles area training with Brache this summer, trying to improve their strength, endurance and technique.
Equally important since last season ended have been the trips to TCF Bank Stadium, where the Vikings will play outdoors at the University of Minnesota while their new home is being built to replace the Metrodome. The controlled climate there helped Walsh set an NFL record with 10 field goals of 50-plus yards as a rookie in 2012 and establish a franchise record with 53 touchbacks on kickoffs. His 141 points were the second-most in Vikings history, and he was an All-Pro and Pro Bowl pick.
Last year, he slipped a bit, particularly from long range. After going 10 for 10 as a rookie, Walsh was 2 for 5 from 50 yards or longer. A nagging injury to his left (non-kicking) hamstring did not help.
“I never really got into a rhythm in that range. This year I’m practicing more and more of it,” Walsh said, adding: “I put a premium on them, and I know outside we’re going to have some deeper opportunities. You’re not inside where there’s no wind and no elements. So I’m focused and I’m more prepared than I’ve ever been.”
Maintaining that trust in his ability is the important part.
“You’ve got to go out there and be smooth from 50-plus. I think that’s the difference between guys who make them and miss them,” Walsh said. “The guys who miss them are the guys who try too hard to make them.”
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and long snapper Cullen Loeffler accompanied Locke and Walsh to the stadium a handful of times during offseason workouts. More visits are planned prior to the home opener on Sept. 14, but Locke and Walsh have already begun scientifically analyzing the potential influence of the wind patterns on their kicks there.
“It’s never going to be easy, especially late in the year when it’s really windy,” Priefer said last month during minicamp. “If you know where the winds are going and you have your sightlines, we’re going to use that as a home-field advantage.”
Locke’s rookie season in 2013 was so-so, ranking 23rd in the NFL in gross average (44.2 yards per punt) and 18th in net average (39.2 yards per punt), so there’s plenty of room for improvement. As a pair of guys around the same age who were drafted to replace established veterans, kicker Ryan Longwell in 2012 and punter Chris Kluwe in 2013, Walsh and Locke have a built-in bond even without their past.
In a dome or in the snow, they’re bound to be kicking for the Vikings for years to come.
“We get to feed off each other, and we’re always constantly pushing each other, whether it’s in the weight room or the film room. I know it’s crazy: film room for kickers,” Walsh said. “But we’re always trying to become the best, and I think having somebody here that wants to do that is awesome.”
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