Toby Gerhart was confident when he was drafted that he would have a role in the Vikings offense. He was admittedly awe-struck first meeting Brett Favre and, despite finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a senior at Stanford, he knew he wasn't going to be a Rookie of the Year candidate.
He wasn't brought in to replace Adrian Peterson. He was brought in to replace valuable backup Chester Taylor. Unlike fellow rookie running backs C.J. Spiller, Ryan Matthews and Jahvid Best, who were all expected to be immediate impact players, Gerhart knew that his job was going to be to compete with Albert Young for the No. 2 running back spot.
Playing time didn't come quickly. In his first five games, Gerhart was used sparingly by design. However, in the last couple of weeks, he has seen that turn around. While a little slower than he expected, he is beginning to move into the role vacated when Taylor left via free agency to Chicago.
"That's what I had envisioned," Gerhart said. "We lost Chester, who the third-down back and did a great job here. They needed someone to fill that role and, through training camp and the first part of the season, Albert and I were splitting that role, competing and trying to fill that role. In the last couple of games, I've been able to get into the game in some big situations."
The going was slow early. Used sparingly as third-down blocker/receiver, in the first five games of the season, he was targeted just three times, catching one pass for five yards. In the last two games, he has been targeted seven times, catching six passes for 73 yards. He tried not to get caught up in being used in an extremely limited role, but realized he had to earn his stripes for increased action to happen. When you've been a workhorse running back since your sophomore year of high school, to be on the field for only a handful of plays a game took some getting used to.
"It was a little frustrating, because I had hoped to get more opportunities, but you have the best back in the league there," Gerhart said. "I understood that it's a growing process. I came from college, where I was getting 28 carries a game and was on the field for 60 snaps to the first five games of the year where I was getting anywhere from one to five snaps a game. At times, it got frustrating, but it's all part of the plan, the growing process and you've got to establish yourself and prove yourself to the coaches that they can trust you."
The hardest adjustment has been to keep himself ready to go in when called upon. For most of his football life, he's been a 20-carry back that gets a rhythm the more he plays. Getting accustomed to working on the side during games in anticipation of having the coaches yell his name has been something that has been an integral part of his game day routine.
"I've never been used to that and always felt I was better late in games with a lot of carries," Gerhart said. "But that was college and this is the NFL. Everybody in the locker room was a full-time starter in college. Here you have to learn to adjust to a role that is asked of you. As a running back, it's nice to get those five to 10 carries to get a feel for the game. But I've learned that I have to be ready at all times, stay loose on the sidelines and stay in the game, because on any snap I could get the call and have to go out there and perform."
With Gerhart's growing familiarity with offense, combined with the increased confidence the coaching staff has shown in him, not only has Gerhart's playing time increased, but he has been on the field late in both of the last two games with the outcome on the line. He said that kind of experience is invaluable and is helping to shape his game.
"It's been good for me," Gerhart said. "Everybody wants to be in the game during key situations and stressful situations. I think I've prepared well for them. (Running backs coach Eric Bienemy) has prepared me every week what to expect in third-down blitz pickup. It's helped me feel more comfortable about getting out on the field and getting chances to play when the game is on the line."
It is expected that, as the season progresses, Gerhart's role will stay the same or increase. He said he is eager to get more opportunities as the Vikings attempt to dig themselves out of the formidable hole that they have dug themselves. Gerhart said his confidence is growing and that he is ready to step up and play a larger role in the team's fortunes in the second half of the season.
"I think I have a lot to offer," Gerhart said. "When I'm getting my chances, I'm trying to make the most of them, whether it's to give Adrian a blow or to come in on third downs. I'm finally feeling like I'm contributing and I'm going to do everything I can to get the coaches to keep putting me out on the field and helping the team win."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Gerhart getting more confidence, reps
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