- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Jeff Locke hadn't attempted a field goal in a game since he was a senior in high school four years ago and he had been shaky on his field goal attempts during practice, but coach Rick Neuheisel called his number anyway.
Never mind that it was against Texas or that the game was on national television or that it was for a 51-yard field goal.
The Bruins needed a field goal and Locke was the best field goal kicker available at the time, so Neuheisel sent Locke out there with time winding down in the first half and Locke delivered. Then he delivered again early in the second half, drilling a 49-yard field goal that got he Bruins to within striking distance at 28-13.
UCLA wound up losing, 49-20, but in an ugly game, Locke certainly stood out and made a breakthrough as a field goal kicker just in time for the Bruins to open Pac-12 play Saturday at Oregon State.
"It was definitely a big confidence boost in terms of kicking field goals because frankly I wasn’t comfortable kicking field goals up to that point," Locke said.
He was kind of forced into the job.
Kip Smith, the first-string kicker, strained his hip flexor last Tuesday in practice and was unavailable for the game. Backup kicker Joe Roberts has a quad injury so he was out of the picture. The team brought on walk-on Tyler Gonzalez, but he wasn't quite ready for competition after just two days of practice.
So Locke, one of the nation's top punters and the team's kickoff specialist, added another duty to his job description, one that required him to alter his practice routine. He has Roberts monitor his technique and let him know when it's time to quit.
"I definitely just kind of have to cut back on reps and really give myself a pitch count before I go out and kick," he said. "When I’m out of kicks, I just have to move on. You can’t just keep kicking and kicking and kicking until you get it right at this point."
Which makes his performance last Saturday even more impressive. His 51-yard field goal was the 30th of 50+ yards in UCLA history and the first time a Bruins kicker made one form 50 or more on his first career attempt.
Not only that, but he still managed to average 48.8 yards on his four punts and averaged 67.8 yards on four kickoffs.
"That was an impressive day for Jeff," special teams coach Angus McClure said. "Everyone certainly knows how good of a punter he is and how good his leg strength from doing kickoffs, but to step up and hit those field goals, he showed good poise and great technique."
Locke first got a look as the field goal kicker during training camp when Smith began to show signs of struggle. The trouble was, Locke wasn't much better. He was shanking balls so badly that Neuheisel took him out of the competition for that spot. Plus, Locke said he wasn't sure if he could handle all three kicking chores without sacrificing something.
"At that point I didn’t really realize the whole pitch count thing I needed to apply," Locke said. "So at this point, I’m a little more comfortable doing all three. I just have to really trust in my technique and not just kick a bunch of balls."
Now, what seemed to be one of the most worrisome positions early in the season, especially after Smith missed form 32 yards out in the season opener, has solidified into a strength. Smith rebounded against San Jose State with two field goals and now Locke has added depth.
Neuheisel was unsure about using Locke for field goals for fear of taking away what he had in a punter and kickoff guy. Locke led the Pac-10 and was fourth in the nation last season with a punting average of 45.8--No. 2 on the single-season school record list.
But when it came time to kick against Texas, Neuheisel said he had no doubt.
"Jeff Locke has proven that he can rise up in big games and make plays when you need him to make plays," Neuheisel said. "So my expectation for him...was that he has big enough shoulders to let that go and he’ll go out and stripe it and low and behold he did."
Locke said he did not let the situation affect him when he trotted out to set up for the field goal. He said he simply cleared his mind and focused on his technique.
"All I try to think about is one technique thought on every kick and that really keeps me focused," he said. "I know my leg is strong. If I hit the ball up, it’s going to go."
But the taste of success he had doesn't mean he is itching to keep kicking field goals for the rest of the season. Smith is still listed as day-to-day but hasn't practiced since his injury and it's looking more and more as if Locke will handle field goals once again Saturday at Oregon State.
Last year, Kai Forbath won the game against Oregon State with a field goal as time expired. If it comes down to that again, Locke says he'll be happy to go out and give it a shot. The distance on Forbath's game winner? 51 yards.
"I’m just going to do what I need to do," Locke said. "Kip is still out as of now so I just have to go out and get the job done for the team. We need somebody to kick and I’ve got to be the guy."
2dChantel Jennings and Kevin Gemmell