Most of the Vikings' players and coaches would just as soon forget the 2011 season. By any measure, it was a disaster. The team won just three games and tied for the worst record in franchise history. It started with a lockout and ended with a whimper – something the Vikings have tried to put behind them.
There are going to be a lot of changes in 2012, as the house-cleaning of veteran players continues and the Vikings turn to a new, younger team in hopes of capturing the lightning in a bottle that turns teams from being bad to good to very good in a short period of time.
One of the key players in that planned ascent is tight end Kyle Rudolph. A first-round talent in 2011 that fell into the second round due to injury concerns, Rudolph said he is expecting big things from himself in his second season. His familiarity with the big things and the little things of being an NFL player is something he feels will be the basis for his maturation as a player and has him looking ahead with a lot of anticipation.
"There's just a lot more comfort this time around," Rudolph said. "I feel a lot more comfortable. I've gone through it all once. Last year with the lockout, our first crack at it was in training camp and everything we did was new. It's a lot like going into your sophomore year of college. Everything is familiar. The offense is second nature. I don't have to learn the offense. Now I can focus on the little nuances and become a better player."
Rudolph's NFL career was a series of stops and starts early on. Drafted during the brief open window of the lockout, he got a playbook and that was about it until the lockout ended prior to the start of training camp. The lockout robbed him of the chance to wean his way into learning the offense and his role in it.
"The lockout had its positives and negatives," Rudolph said. "For a rookie in a normal year, it's a grind. You go from your (college) season and your bowl game to Combine training to the rookie minicamp to the OTAs to the team minicamp. There's no break. Then you jump into a 16-game season that none of us have ever gone through. We got a little time off because of the lockout, so we were champing at the bit by July to get out there and get into training camp. But, at the same time, we were behind the 8-ball as far as preparation was concerned. It was a crash course and you tried to learn as much as you can as quickly as you could. The only good part was that everyone had to go through the same thing – it wasn't just the Vikings that had a lockout."
Just as Rudolph expects to see improvement in his own game, he – along with Vikings players, coaches and fans – are expecting to see the game of Christian Ponder elevated to a new level. Without the distraction of Donovan McNabb in the way, it's Ponder's team heading into 2012 and Rudolph is convinced his good friend is ready to take the next step as a quarterback.
"He's definitely excited for next year," Rudolph said. "He's put the time in ever since he got here and you can see the difference in him this time around. We're expecting a lot of big things from him this year and I think he's expecting a lot of himself and has been preparing hard to get ready for this year."
One of Rudolph's new responsibilities is as a veteran on a young team helping to bring along this year's rookie class, which includes a pair of players from his alma mater Notre Dame. Rudolph said his adjustment to the NFL was made a lot easier by the work of a pair of consummate veterans in Jim Kleinsasser and Visanthe Shiancoe, as well as other key veterans. He said they helped pave the way for him to make the transition to the NFL and he plans to emulate their veteran leadership and pay it forward to new Vikings players.
"They were awesome to me," Rudolph said. "And it wasn't just the veterans at my position. Obviously having Shank and Jim in my room – that's over 20 years of NFL experience – was a big help. Jim was like a father, whether it was on the field or off the field, helping me out and trying to instill all of his wisdom. I'm forever indebted to him for that. But, it went across the team – guys on the defense like Chad (Greenway) and Jared (Allen), who are Pro Bowl guys. They had no obligation to help me out as a tight end, but they were always helping out, whether it was during practice or off the field."
Rudolph admits the Vikings have a long was to come in a tough division to get back into playoff contention. It won't come easily. It may not come as quickly as most would like. However, he believes the New England model of using two tight ends as focal points of the offense is going to spread and that the Vikings have a pair of legitimate playmakers in himself and free-agent signee John Carlson. As the Vikings attempt to make their climb back to respectability, he expects that he will be right in the middle of it – and doesn't want it any other way.
"We feel like, in the tight end room, we can have a big impact on this offense," Rudolph said. "We want to be a big part of it and want to give the coaches a reason to put us both out there are the same time and when it gets to be crunch time that they want us both on the field."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Rudolph sees reason for hope, improvement
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