Nothing Certain At Fullback

The Vikings have no rock-solid plan at fullback. Instead, they are waiting for one of their young prospects to prove himself. See what running backs coach Dean Dalton has to say about the prospects and the future of the position. … Plus, analysis on Onterrio Smith.

Before Jim Kleinsassser moved from fullback to tight end (again) last year, there wasn't a question who would take care of the lead blocking for the Vikings. But with Kleinsasser primarily on the line of scrimmage again in 2003, the Vikings are left without a proven fullback.

The candidates are second-year Viking Jeremy Allen and undrafted rookie free agent James Lynch. Each has his pros and cons as they prepare for a final deciding session -- training camp.

"Jeremy Allen has been here. He knows the system," position coach Dean Dalton said. "But James Lynch has done a great job of learning on the run. He has great natural football savvy. He brings a lot more to the power part of the fullback position, so it's going to be a good battle. Right now Jeremy has the edge in experience, but James Lynch is bigger, more powerful and has shown great athletic ability -- and he's still learning the system."

While Allen, at 5-foot-11, 241 pounds, has a nice muscular build, Lynch packs more power with a bowling ball physique at 5-11, 271. But, like Dalton said, Lynch lacks the year of NFL learning that Allen received on the practice squad last year.

So as the Vikings prepare for training camp later this month, one of these two will emerge from August's rigors as the fullback on the 53-man roster, right?

"No. There's no for sure," Dalton said. "We've got nine running backs on the roster, and it will sort itself out by their contributions and what they bring to the team. Last year we did a great job in rushing and we didn't have a true fullback on the roster. We used Jimmy (Kleinsasser) in that role.

"If James Lynch or Jeremy Allen prove that they can contribute in that role or other roles, i.e. special teams, then they'll earn themselves a job as a fullback. Then that will keep Jimmy on the line of scrimmage. Nothing is set in concrete."

Kleinsasser is the wild card again … or maybe more like the ace in the hole. If Lynch or Allen can't prove they can handle the job on the 53-man roster, then Dalton may be working with Kleinsasser as his part-time contractor at fullback again.

The ‘other' rookie back
The battle between Allen and Lynch isn't the only intriguing one in the offensive backfield this training camp. Many eyes will be focused on Onterrio Smith, the Vikings' fourth-round pick in 2003 who thinks he could be the steal of the draft. So far, no one in the Vikings organization is disagreeing with that statement.

"He's got excellent natural running vision," Dalton said. "He's got great change of direction. He sees terrifically between the tackles and he's a powerful guy. He's got power, he's got great change of direction and he can run."

So what does Smith lack? "Experience," Dalton said. "And he's got to prove to us that he can handle the mental part of our game. The mental part of our game, you've got to be a complete player and be able to handle the intricacies of our protections. You've got to be able to handle the passing game. We know he's a great runner, but if he can be a great back then the sky is the limit."

Smith was able to attend the Vikings' official three-day minicamp two months ago, but because of NFL restrictions involving his alma mater, Oregon, still being in session while the Vikings were conducting voluntary developmental camps, Smith wasn't allowed to attend those three weeks of extra work. That missed time will set him back, especially considering he could have received more carries with Michael Bennett recovering from foot surgery.

So Smith will have to make up ground in training camp if he wants to see limited action in the backfield early in the regular season.

"He's going to have to come out in great shape physically in training camp and learn on the run," Dalton said.

Note
* With the depth on the roster at running back, look for the Vikings to be cautious with Michael Bennett's practice time early in training camp. The more repetitions they can get Smith and ease Bennett into football playing shape, the better the depth will be at the beginning of the regular season.



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