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UCLA FOOTBALL

This season will cap Jeff Locke's UCLA career

The punter and kickoff specialist has skills that could take him to the NFL or the world of high finance. But about that headwear...

August 21, 2012|By Chris Foster

Jeff Locke's roommates are not entirely fond of the baseball-style cap that the UCLA punter insists on wearing.

"Disgusting," is the way Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince describes it.

"I refuse to touch it," says long snapper Kevin McDermott.

Locke couldn't care less what his buddies think. "All's fair in friendship," he says with a smirk.

The cap — a UCLA model, white with a powder blue brim — means a lot to Locke. Somewhere under the grime are dozens of signatures, scribbled by UCLA players as a prank orchestrated by Prince in 2009.

Over time, the cap has morphed into a symbol of his growth. Besides marking his time at UCLA, it reminds Locke of those boys-will-be-boys moments that made him less awkward.

"There are maybe five guys on the cap who are left from that team," Locke says. "This cap has seen a lot. I think I have matured a lot since then."

Locke came to UCLA as a painfully shy kid from Arizona who had worked to overcome a speech impediment. He will leave after this season having become a team leader and one of the top punters in the nation. He graduated in the spring with a 3.885 grade-point average and was named UCLA's male scholar-athlete of the year.

Ahead are paths leading to the NFL or into high finance. He even jokes about becoming Senator Locke.

First, he has one more season as the guy in the disgusting cap.

Locke the kicker means a lot to a UCLA team in transition. He averaged 44.6 yards a punt the last three seasons, and his kickoffs are deep and accurate. In a pinch, he has even nailed a couple of long field goals.

"It's a huge sense of relief to have a kicker like Jeff," first-year Coach Jim Mora said.

Locke the team leader means as much to the Bruins off the field. For example, he put what he learned as an economics major to use during the spring, calling a team meeting to offer advice on handling scholarship money.

"When Jeff calls a meeting, people show up," McDermott says.

Locke has come a long way since arriving in Westwood in 2008 looking as if he'd stepped out of the 1970s. All that was missing was an eight-track tape under his arm.

"He had a bowl haircut. He was wearing jeans shorts, looking kind of nerdy," Prince recalls. "He said, 'Hi, we're roommates.' I was like, 'Oh boy, I'm with the punter.' "

Locke was born on a military base in Germany but was reared in Arizona. He was a soccer player who was persuaded to kick for the freshman football team at Glendale Mountain Ridge High.

The first football game Locke saw was the first one he played in, but he was promoted to the varsity two days later.

"I was killing the ball," he says. "That was kind of a wake-up call."

Although he excelled on the field and in the classroom, he was withdrawn socially because of a lisp that made him self-conscious.

"I used to tell everyone that I was from Germany so they would think it was just a German accent," Locke says. "That went over great until one of the seniors on my high school team met my brother, who had no accent. That debunked that myth."

As a freshman, Prince went to work on Locke. McDermott joined in a year later. The three have an off-campus apartment that has a fun-house feel.

There are mornings when Prince has banged pots and pans to roust Locke from a deep sleep. Locke tries to answer prank-for-prank but says, "the trouble with Prince is he is always willing to escalate."

The cap incident, though, couldn't be ignored.

"That thing started looking pretty nasty," Prince recalls. "I thought if I had the guys sign it, he wouldn't wear it. He got pretty mad."

And got even.

Prince showed up at practice a week later with Jeff Locke-autographed cleats.

"Kevin really brought me out of my shell," Locke says.

Locke has grown into a team leader, and a national spokesman for athletes. He is on the athlete committee for the National College Players Assn., a organization that gives athletes a voice in the big-dollar world of college sports.

"When the NFL scouts watch him kick, they will be impressed," Mora says. "When they sit down to talk with him, his stock will rise."

Locke has already shown his on-field capabilities. He finished fourth nationally in punting, averaging 44.3 yards in 2011. With other kickers hurt, Locke made field goals from 49 and 51 yards against Texas.

But it was an 81-yard punt that Locke launched against Arizona in 2009 that made an impression on McDermott.

"I remember looking up and thinking, 'That ball is not going to come down,' " McDermott says.

Locke reacted as he always does. He came to the sideline, took off his helmet and put on his cap.

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

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