In the middle of the special teams program is its youngest member and its greatest unknown – rookie kicker Blair Walsh. When the Vikings drafted Walsh, it was clear that Ryan Longwell's days as a Viking were likely numbered. Rather than have a competition between the two of them, Longwell was released in May, leaving the job to Walsh by himself. However, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has made it clear that, even though Walsh is the only kicker at training camp, he hasn't locked down anything yet.
"It looks like he's unchallenged because he's the only guy here, but every day is a challenge," Priefer said. "Like I told him when we drafted him and we brought him for the rookie minicamp and we were about to make the decision to let (veteran Ryan Longwell) go. When we finally did let Ryan go, I said, ‘You are now competing against every kicker who is not on a roster or every second kicker that is on somebody's roster but is going to be the guy that gets cut.' He takes it very seriously."
One element that Walsh brings is the ability to boom kickoffs out of the end zone, something Longwell didn't do with much regularity. Priefer said his biggest challenge last year was simply trying to weigh the impact of the rules change that moved kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line. He said he is much better prepared for different eventualities on kickoff returns and kick coverage this year than he was before the touchbacks started piling up around the league.
"It took me about eight, nine, 10 games to figure out exactly how it was going to affect us," Priefer said. "On kickoff return, we do some things differently with our front line and how we drop, angles we drop from, where our front-line people set up and our halfbacks and fullbacks and ends, where we set up our returner and how deep we're going to (allow a returner to be and still) bring it out. More teams were bringing out kicks 6, 7, 8 yards deep (in the end zone), including us. People were sick of the touchbacks."
After seeing effect of the rules change and seeing Walsh in the Vikings rookie minicamp, Priefer made the recommendation to release Longwell and give Walsh all the kicking reps in camps.
Priefer has also fallen in love with the Vikings new-look practice routine in which walk-through practices are taking place in the morning and the longer, more intensive practices are happening in the afternoon. He is a stickler for detail and this new practice format is ideal for what he is trying to accomplish to help the Vikings win games as a result of strong special teams play.
"I do a calendar posted through the whole training camp and the whole preseason," Priefer said. "The first week and a half is planned out to the minute. After this first 10 days are over with then it's what do we need to work on after the San Francisco (preseason opening) game? Where do we have to go back and work out? What are the fundamentals we're not as good at? It's a great schedule. I love the schedule and I think we're getting a lot out of it. The guys have bought into it and they've been focused. It's been a great camp so far."
The new format has allowed Priefer to let his players practice what he preaches. Thursday morning the special teams worked on the middle return game. Priefer was able to discuss it in the meeting room with the players immediately prior to the morning walk-through practice and practice it in "live" situations during the afternoon practice.
Because no two players absorb information exactly the same way, Priefer believes that the format of the practice schedule is conducive to maximizing the effectiveness of his special teams unit.
"Everybody learns differently," Priefer said. "Some guys learn better by walking it through it. Other guys learn better by seeing it on tape and then walking through it and then doing it for real. Every guy learns a little bit different so I try to teach all three different parts so I can reach as many people as possible."
One player Priefer continues to rave about is Jamarca Sanford, who has quickly established himself as a special teams standout. While not the only special teams demon that has turned his head at practice, Priefer said he loves the controlled insanity Sanford brings to the table.
"He's almost as crazy as I am," Preifer said. "You've got to have a couple screws loose to when you play special teams. He's small, but he's tough, he's fast, he uses his hands extremely well, he got great feet and he's got great heart. I wish I had 10 of him. I wish I had 10 Eric Framptons and 10 Larry Deans. We've got some guys on this team that have really bought into what we're trying to accomplish here and I'm really excited about where we're going."
While most of the focus of the fans during training camp and the preseason will be on the maturation of Christian Ponder on offense and answering the questions at linebacker and safety on defense, Priefer said one thing he doesn't want there to be any questions about is on special teams and he likes the direction his group is heading.
"There's a lot to be excited about," Priefer said. "We have a great group of guys here that are learning together. I expect big things from them."
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.
Priefer: Rookie Walsh still has challengers
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