By: Aj Mansour | KFAN.com
Eden Prairie, MN - As the Vikings continue to prepare for the 2014 NFL season, it's easy to get swept away in the dreams of what Teddy Bridgewater can be or to be distracted by the most recent leaping grab by Cordarrelle Patterson. One of the things that continues to get overlooked at this stage in the race is the fact that all eight of the Vikings home games will be played in an unfamiliar, outdoor stadium at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota.
While most of the coaches and players have their focus on learning the playbook and executing during mandatory mini camp, a small group has taken the time to acclimate themselves with what will be their new home this season. And they are doing so, with a very scientific approach.
On a typical practice day, you'll see a good dose of the Vikings special teamers (K-Blair Walsh, P-Jeff Locke & LS Cullen Loeffler) hanging out on the sidelines, juggling footballs with their feet and observing the rest of the team's sessions. But don't think they're not doing their homework.
Over the past three weeks, this special team's unit, along with their coach Mike Priefer have made the journey over to TCF Bank Stadium at the U of M to get a little field time with their new home. All in all, they've stopped by three times. Once before the new turf was installed, once last week and then once again this week.
Notebook's in hand, they take to the field to kick, observe and study.
"We bring a notebook with us," Vikings second-year punter Jeff Locke said. "We write down what the Weather Channel says that day for the wind and then we translate it into what that field is actually doing with that wind pattern. We kind of get a gauge for it and then we'll start hitting some and see how the ball is moving in the air based on the winds coming over the top or through the gap."
Both Locker and kicker Blair Walsh played their college days in outdoor stadiums, but the weather in Georgia and Los Angeles was regularly a bit more mild then it will be here in Minnesota come December.
And the East/West blueprint of "The Bank" doesn't help the situation either.
"It's a pretty windy stadium," Locke said this week. "Some days it's been good and then some days it's been tunneling through...The way the stadium is set up [East to West], it's going to effect the way that [the ball flies] based on the tendencies of the wind in the Twin Cities area."
Locke went on to say that it's not about necessarily knowing how each kick will differ based on the wind patterns, but more so on knowing how the ball will act when kicking it from certain spots on the field.
Another unfamiliar element for both Locke and Walsh at the team's outdoor home for 2014 & 2015 will be the cold.
With average temperatures hovering around 12 degrees on a good Minnesota day in December, the Vikings will need to adjust to the climate to regain a home field advantage in the kicking game.
"You're going to lose about five yards [with the colder temperatures]," Locke explained. "Really for every ten degrees from forty and below that you get, you lose at least a yard of distance and probably a tenth of a second of hang time. You just have to kind of accept that's the way it will be. Directional punting becomes a premium in the cold."
According to special teams coach Mike Priefer, the team continues to work with Locke's approach and a big part of that is preparing him to play in the outdoors this season.
"We are still tweaking his technique," Priefer said on Wednesday. "We want him to be more of a directional punter now because we are going to use the crosswinds now in these outdoors stadiums we are playing in, of course at home. I’m looking forward to seeing his development as we go."
Ready to embark on his second year in the league, Locke admits that there is much less pressure on himself heading into this year and hopes that will help him focus on getting better at his craft.
"Mentally I'm in a little better spot," Locke said. "A little bit less pressure on myself coming in. I was trying to be all everything coming in and you just have to relax and punt."
Both Locke and Priefer referenced the October 27th home game against the Packers last year as Jeff's turning point. Prior to that, he was booming the ball but struggled pinning the opponent deep. After that game, he was able to understand some of the subtle nuances of punting in the NFL and rather than going for distance on a regular basis, he began to strive for better angles and longer hang time allowing his team to pin their opponent in an unfavorable position.
Locke and the Vikings will play a total of thirteen outdoor games in 2014 with eleven of them being in traditionally cold weather climates. So whether it's the scientific study of weather patterns or the added confidence of a sophomore season, the team will need their kickers to be on top of their game if they hope to succeed.
Aj Mansour covers Minnesota Sports for KFAN.com. Feel free to leave comments and questions regarding this post in the space provided below. For Vikings updates and breaking Vikings news, follow Aj on Twitter. @AjKFAN