Commentary

Locke kicking his way to UCLA

Originally Published: November 9, 2007
By Jamar Hudson | ESPN.com

Jeff Locke has heard it all before.

He's heard those who say kickers aren't real football players and have no place on the football field. He's heard kickers aren't tough and physical enough. He's heard the doubters.

Yet, just like he does when he lines up for an extra point or field goal, he tunes everything out and focuses on his job.

"You can't really say anything to the people, all you can do is just go out there and try to show them what you can do," Locke said.

"You can't really talk back to them and say 'no, I'm just like every one else,' because you are different from everybody else, but at the same time, you just go out there and do what you can do to try and show you're like any other player."

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
Pam PearsonJeff Locke has sent 90 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks.
A senior at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Ariz, Locke is the No. 1-rated place kicker in the ESPN 150 in addition to his punting duties. In 2006, Locke connected on 7-of-11 field goals and averaged 43.3 yards per punt. So far this season, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound UCLA commit is 11-of-19 and is averaging 43 yards per punt. On kickoffs, 90 percent have resulted in touchbacks.

Locke's senior year got off to a booming start, literally, as in the first game of the season against Sunnyside (Tucson), Locke set a new Arizona state with a 63-yard field goal, breaking the mark of 62 yards set in 1989 held by former Cactus High kicker Kyle Pooler.

So while opposing coaches often center their game plans in hopes of stopping or slowing down an opposing team's quarterback, running back or wide receiver, Locke's new record left coaches doing their best to try and keep him off the field.

"I had hit up to 65 [yards] in practice, so I knew I could probably do it, and I had some wind at my back," Locke said. 'I think after that first game, all the coaches knew that they had to try to keep the ball pretty much out of their half of the defensive field."

The left-footed Locke grew up a soccer player. It was that skill which would eventually pay dividends for him down the road. Because of his soccer background, when Locke went out for the football team as a freshman, coaches called on him to handle the kicking duties. Little did he know over the next four years, he would develop into one of the top high school kickers, earning a scholarship in the process.

"When I first started, I just thought I was just kicking because the team needed me to kick," Locke said. "My kicking coach (Larry Stillman) pretty much took me from being a soccer player with a strong leg as a freshman to being someone who's getting a scholarship, which is something I thought I'd never do.

"Every summer I worked, and I knew that I could probably do something good with it, so I just kept working at it."

Nonetheless, kicking is still a lonely job, and despite the accolades, it remains that way for Locke. During the week, Locke pretty much stays to himself, working to improve his punting average and working on field goals. It's redundant, but that's part of the job.

"One of the toughest things about being a kicker is you have to try to approach every situation the exact same way," Locke said. "It takes a lot of time to be able to tell yourself that it's the same as every other kick, especially when you're lining it up from like, say 50 or so different spots on the fields. But you have to be able to tell yourself it's all the same kick."

Locke's not alone. While more notable camps are held across the country for skill position players, in July, Locke along with 11 other kickers attended the Chris Sailer Kicking Camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The camp brought together the best kickers, punters and long snappers from across the country to learn and compete in a closed setting.

"It was awesome to be able to go out there and compete against some really good kickers form across the nation," Locke said. "We can all tell like what each other are doing wrong when we miss a kick, and that's an awesome thing to be able to have."

Locke committed to UCLA, choosing the Bruins over Arizona State, Nebraska, Stanford and Georgia Tech, because he feels they have one of the best combinations for athletics and academics in the country as well as a great tradition of have great special teams and players. Presently, there is good core group of specialists already on the roster whom he can learn from.

"They had planned on me just punting because they have a freshman that's really good right now. Maybe kickoffs, but they told me punting," Locke said. "I like punting a lot more than kicking. I really have no idea why. It feels better to me. Kicking doesn't feel as natural to me anymore."

Following Locke's record-setting kick, he was honored by his hometown Arizona Cardinals as their High School player of the week. He received a plaque and met a few players. But, for Locke, the most memorable moment was being able to watch practice.

"It was awesome to be able to go out there and watch their practice. I got to see Neil Rackers and their punter kick all practice, and they just make it all look so easy," Locke said. "It's just crazy thinking they're able to do this for a living and just how easy they make it look."

While he's already had an accomplished career in high school, he still has a ways to go. That day at Cardinals practice, he got a glimpse of what it takes to be the best. Now, he's striving to one day be the best.

"I think if you don't have the goal of getting to the pros, then you're not in the right area right now," Locke said. "You have to strive to be able to get to that level to be good I think."

Jamar Hudson is a recruiting editor for ESPN.com.