Jeff Locke starts each week in front of a whiteboard he keeps in his house. It’s the Vikings punter’s first step in a routine of organizing how he’ll prepare for another week of kicking.
The list he rewrites every Sunday night or Monday morning consists of ice baths, hot baths, using the Normatec machine to help with blood flow, stretching and rolling out his muscles with foam. Each of these steps is necessary for Locke to maintain the routine he’s confident has played a role in his successful first quarter of the season.
“I’m kind of OCD with my calendar, with my schedule,” Locke said. “So on that hour of that day on that week, I’m probably going to be doing what I was the week before. I just try to stick to routine and keep the body in the same mode of preparation for the entire week so that you’re not ever on a quick change.”
Locke’s consistent off-field approach is translating to consistency on the field, the most the Vikings have gotten from their punter since drafting him in fifth round (155th overall) in 2013.
The Vikings have given up only 4 punt return yards through four games, best in the NFL by 19 yards. Locke’s 41.4-yard punting average, a career best, ranks 11th in the NFL, and he’s placed nine of his 16 punts inside the 20-yard line, the second-best efficiency in the league, with no touchbacks.
The longest return the coverage team has given up is just 2 yards.
“He’s been more consistent. He’s worked real hard on that part of his game,” special teams coach Mike Priefer said. “Last year he flashed some really good qualities, and he just wasn’t as consistent as we needed him to be, and he’s done that so far this year.”
Coach Mike Zimmer and his defense are benefiting from Locke’s strong start and the deep field position he’s putting opposing offenses in.
“He’s punting the ball very well. He’s kept them pinned back; a lot of inside-the-20 punts,” Zimmer said. “Then a couple of times [against Denver] … we were way backed up and he hit some good ones. So we want him to just continue what he’s doing.”
Even if that means sitting in a bath of ice or the hot tub while the rest of the team is in and out of meetings.
“He goes about his work and goes about it very particular,” said Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, also Locke’s teammate at UCLA.
“I can’t tell you exactly what his routine is ’cause I can’t quite describe it,” he added with a smile. “But he’s been huge. Especially for defense. We’re pretty high up there in opponents’ starting field position. … A lot of that has to do with him.”
Another former UCLA teammate, linebacker Eric Kendricks, described Locke’s routine as quirky but added that Locke is the hardest-working punter he has seen.
“He’s meticulous, he’s methodical, he watches film, he stretches, does ice baths. He does all the little things you don’t really expect a punter to do,” Kendricks said.
Priefer sometimes worries that Locke’s intelligence might cause him to overthink things, but this is how he’s been since his freshman year of college, long snapper and college roommate Kevin McDermott said.
Locke spent the offseason learning from his first two years in the NFL and how he can be a better situational punter. He’s also focused on studying what he did right on good punts rather than look back at what he did wrong on a bad punt. He studies the effect of wind patterns at TCF Bank Stadium and other venues on kicks. All these factors play into whether he’ll use his Aussie-style punt or traditional field punt.
“When someone has that kind of dedication to their craft, normally it’s something that carries over to the football field, and in his case it does,” McDermott said.
As detailed as it all might seem, Locke said he’s actually focused on fewer things and his definition of simplicity is paying off.
“Being more consistent and being more reliable for the team is something I really focused on this offseason,” Locke said. “Now I’m just locked in on a couple thoughts throughout the entire game and just stick to that routine, and I think it’s really helping me keep a singular focus.”