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Updated: August 30th, 2010 10:14pm
Preseason finale could be drive-or-die for kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd

Preseason finale could be drive-or-die for kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Rhys Lloyd is an avid golfer and is married to a former LPGA pro, so it's no surprise he talks about his profession in terms of another game.

"I have one club in the bag, and it's my driver, and I'm kind of 'Happy Gilmore'-ing," the Minnesota Vikings' kickoff specialist said on Monday.

"That's my thought, and it's laughable, but I can't go out there and hit a pitching wedge, because my job's to hit it as far as possible."

That's where Lloyd has run into trouble this preseason. He knows he has only one way to prove it's worth using an extra spot to keep him around -- by knocking the ball so deep opponents can't return it -- and he hasn't had a ton of opportunities to do it.

So, Lloyd has started to press. And when Lloyd presses, he has games like he did on Saturday night, when he mishit at least two of his five kickoffs and failed again to record his first touchback in eight chances this preseason.

"That's kind of how I got myself into the league and how I made a name for myself, was hitting it as hard as I can," said Lloyd, the 28-year-old former Gopher who has spent three NFL seasons with Baltimore and Carolina.

"But there's a fine point of hitting it as hard as you can when you get to the ball (instead of) the first steps of me thinking, 'Oh, I've got to smash this' ... and then I'm at the ball trying to kick it way too hard, and then the technique kind of goes out the window."

A rare film session has Lloyd convinced he's found the fix, and he says he's not thinking about whether his job will be in jeopardy when teams cut down to 53 players on Saturday.

But Vikings coach Brad Childress made clear on Monday that Lloyd still has plenty to prove in Thursday's preseason finale against the Denver Broncos.

"You want touchbacks to occur," Childress said. "We had (98 kickoffs last season) -- most violent play in football, and obviously, if you can, two-thirds of the time, be able to not have to see a return, that would be the object of that. That's got to be a consistent thing."

The original plan was to split all preseason kicking duties between Lloyd and place-kicker Ryan Longwell -- ostensibly to give Lloyd a shot to win both roles, but probably moreso to make sure Longwell stayed sharp if his counterpart flopped. That plan went out the window when Lloyd didn't even get a chance to kick off Aug. 22 at San Francisco until an onside try in the fourth quarter.

Coaches need all the opportunities they can get to decide whether it's worth keeping Lloyd in addition to Longwell, who is coming off his most accurate season but recorded only five touchbacks (5.1%) in 2009 and never has recorded more than 11 in 13 NFL seasons.

Lloyd had 51 touchbacks in 160 kickoffs (31.9%) over the past two seasons with the Panthers. Only Atlanta's Michael Koenen (38.4%), Dallas' David Buehler (37.7%), Denver's Matt Prater (35.9%), Seattle's Olindo Mare (31.9%) and Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski (29.3%) were better than Lloyd (29.2%) in 2009.

"Expectation is 9, 10 deep every time, but that's not a reality, and it's just trying to find that happy medium," Lloyd said. "I've always gone with the thought of (aiming for) goal line or better with good hang time. If you cancel one of those out and go for distance, it's going to go deeper. If you get the hang time, it still gives us a better opportunity of making a tackle inside the 20. So, either way works out pretty good."

To that end, the Seahawks averaged only 19.6 yards on five returns Saturday night, and their average starting field position off kickoffs was the 21-yard line. But the latter number is skewed by an illegal block that backed up one drive to the 7-yard in the fourth quarter.

Three drives began at the Seahawks' 25-, 28- and 26-yard lines, respectively. That's not what the Vikings expected when they signed Lloyd in March and gave him a $200,000 bonus.

Kickers have to pace themselves through camp, but Lloyd can't hold back now.

"I went from 85, 90 percent in the first game to obviously not getting a chance in San Francisco and then going straight to maybe 110 when I should be at maybe 95 or 100," Lloyd said. "So, that'll be corrected this week. I've already done my stuff (Monday) and corrected it within two or three steps and I feel good and hopefully, take it to Thursday night and do the same thing and fix it all."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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