Campers Coming Together

The second of three weeks of developmental camp has come to a close and the newcomers to the Vikings are beginning to look more comfortable as more plays are introduced. Also, Week 2 camp notes.

After an official minicamp in early May and two weeks of developmental camp, the newcomers to the Vikings' system are in the beginning stages of "getting it" -- and there are plenty of newcomers, especially on defense.

From those first days of minicamp to now, there have been no major changes in the starting rotation on offense or defense, but the chemistry is starting to improve. Observers aren't seeing linebackers coach Brian Baker running across the field as often to find out what one of his pupils was thinking. The defensive backs, mostly veterans for a change, are starting to get used to playing with each other. And on the other side of the ball, the second-team offense isn't to going back to the huddle as often because of a player not understanding the formation.

It's called developmental camp for a reason. Young players and new-to-you veterans are getting accustomed to a system they haven't played in before and teammates they didn't know two months ago. Still, things are progressing.

Safety Willie Offord is still developing, but he isn't quite as overwhelmed as he was in his rookie year while cutting his teeth in live games.

"I think he's really improved. I think he's got a better grasp of the defense," safety Corey Chavous said of Offord. "He understands the game better. I think any time you go into your second year the game begins to slow down. One thing about Willie, he's got a lot of physical ability. He's a smart kid, a guy who knows what he needs to do. I think he knows where he needs to improve.

"The thing I like about him is that he wants to get better, he wants to learn more about the game. He asks questions. When you've got guys that have been in the league six years, eight, nine, ten years, you should ask questions. That's how you become a better football player."

The linebackers have a new addition to the starting ranks in Chris Claiborne, and the backups are more talented -- and in the case of Raonall Smith and especially Nick Rogers, having one year in the NFL seems to be showing.

The substituting rotation on the defensive line is coming together, with Kevin Williams, Billy Lyon and Chuck Wiley rotating mainly on the interior, but each of them has a chance to play left defensive end on occasion as well, while Lance Johnstone and Lorenzo Bromell rotate at right defensive end.

On offense, right tackle Mike Rosenthal is the only new addition to the starting ranks, and he is also progressing in his familiarity with David Dixon and the Vikings' system.

"I'm trying to pick up the offense and get in sync with the guys," Rosenthal told VU. "It's a work in progress, but we'll get there. I think there are some different techniques and some techniques that will help me get better as a player, so I'm excited about that.

"Every day I pick up something new, which is good. I just go home and study, and there's always a little nuance of every play that I'll pick each night or each day at practice, that if I apply it mentally it won't happen again. That's the encouraging part, just trying to pick up different things every day."

While the improvement is happening, all the coaches and veteran players give the same warning: Wait until the pads go on in training camp before making any real assessments of the team and the players. The rise and fall last year of safety Kyries Hebert, who was showered with praise in spring camps and cut after training camp (when the pads go on) seems to bring caution to the analysis, but there is optimism in the air with a fresh influx of talent.

* Linebacker Greg Biekert has been competing in all the drills for a week now, and it appears he'll be completely ready for the pads by training camp.
* Rogers twisted an ankle in Thursday's practice, but an ice pack and rest over the weekend should have him back in practice on Monday.
* Punter Eddie Johnson saw limited kickoff action earlier this week, but a strained lower back kept him from kicking off Thursday. He does have a strong enough leg to handle those chores when healthy.
* One of the rookie free agents making an impression is Jermaine Mays, a wide receiver from the University of Minnesota. The coaches had given some thought moving him to defense, but he has done so well at receiver that those plans may be permanently put on hold. He made a great touchdown catch Thursday, as his fully prone dive saw him snag the ball over close coverage and just in bounds. Mays also is getting high marks on the coverage units of special teams, according to special teams coach Rusty Tillman.
* Kicker Hayden Epstein has seen light duty kicking field goals, but he is still recovering from his knee surgery following the final game of the 2002 regular season and has been kept away from kicking off and longer field goals.
* Nate Burleson, Larry Ned and John Avery have been receiving the bulk of the work returning kickoffs. Ned especially is showing tremendous speed. University of Oregon draft picks Onterrio Smith and Keenan Howry, who weren't able to attend the developmental camps because their school was still in session, will also join those vying for a return job when training camp practices start on July 26.
* With Michael Bennett still sidelined while recovery from foot surgery, these three weeks of work would have been an ideal time for Onterrio Smith to get carries with the first-team offense, but by the time he is able to practice the developmental camps will be done. Smith showed great vision and cutback ability in the official minicamp.

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