The logical assumption is Michael Bennett will step right into Robert Smith's role as the Vikings' top running back this season. After all, Bennett was the Vikings' first-round draft choice in April and through two preseason games he led the team with 94 yards rushing on 16 carries with two touchdowns.
But before anyone concedes the job to the former Wisconsin Badger, they better check with Doug Chapman, who is likely to get plenty of carries this season. With Moe Williams missing time in camp for personal reasons and because of a sore foot, Chapman and Bennett have been the featured backs this preseason.
In fact, running backs coach Carl Hargrave likens the one-two punch of Bennett and Chapman to the Smith-Leroy Hoard combination that proved so effective for the Vikings a few seasons back. Bennett is expected to play the role of the speedy Smith, with the 5-foot-10, 213-pound Chapman bulldozing opponents much like Hoard did.
Chapman, for one, is just happy to hear his name mentioned in the same breath as playing time. Last season, he was inactive for all 16 regular-season games and both playoff contests.
Chapman's laid-back personality gave some the impression that he was not all that concerned about playing. But Chapman was smart enough to realize what a valuable opportunity he had. Rather than getting thrown into the fire, he was able to watch one of the NFL's top running backs in Smith and spend a year learning the offense.
"It was a good learning experience to not be thrown to the wolves," Chapman said. "The situation I was in, I kind of was groomed under Robert. I got to practice and learn the offense. Then when it was my turn to actually go on the field, I wasn't just learning everything fresh. I knew everything and I just had to apply it."
Chapman answered any questions about his desire to make an impact last March when he joined Cris Carter's strenuous offseason workout program in Boca Raton, Fla. "I feel that helped me a lot," he said. "Mentally, being around guys like Cris and a lot of veterans and everything."
Chapman, a college teammate of Randy Moss at Marshall, also was able to spend some time with Hargrave, who visited the players in Boca Raton and did some work with Chapman.
The result of all his learning, conditioning and training is that Chapman now feels as if he belongs on an NFL field.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," he said. "I feel like the game has slowed down a little bit. It's kind of like I know what is going to happen before the snap instead of it being a surprise. I'm definitely a lot more comfortable than last year."
Chapman had eight rushes for 27 yards — a 3.4 average — in two preseason games against the Saints and Steelers. He also had three receptions for 35 yards. A thigh bruise suffered in the Steelers game did slow him a bit and kept him out of the Colts game, but he appeared more concerned about getting his timing down.
"It's kind of hard to get into a rhythm sometimes in preseason," Chapman said. "Especially at running back, where you are not getting a lot of carries. You have to keep your mental focus going because both the running backs are getting between four and eight carries a game, whereas in the regular season sometimes you will be getting 20 carries. You have to kind of get your mind ready for that."
Chapman also has the challenge of returning to the field after what could be called a redshirt year. "Just getting used to getting back on the field, getting used to playing again (is a challenge)," he said. "But it's definitely coming back. I'm getting back into the groove now."
Plowing the way
While Chapman and Bennett are expected to play important roles this season, the Vikings also are expected to rely more heavily on fullback Jim Kleinsasser, who is entering his third year.
Last season, Kleinsasser's blocking helped Smith set the team record for single-season rushing at 1,521 yards. Kleinsasser certainly will be asked to open holes for Chapman and Bennett, but odds are strong he also will get more than the 12 carries he had in 2000.
"I just enjoy playing, getting on the field and doing whatever," said Kleinsasser, a second-round choice in 1999 from North Dakota. "If that means getting out there and catching some balls, running the ball, that's great. That's just gravy on top of it."
Kleinsasser, who at 6-3, 274 pounds does not appear to have an ounce of fat on him, said he pretty much stuck to his offseason training routine. "I did a little more running, like running routes and working on my feet," he said. "That was probably the major difference from last year to this year."
Although the Vikings got off to a good start in the preseason, Kleinsasser said there was still plenty of work to be done. "We have a ways to go yet and these next two games are going to be a good test for us," he said. "I think we'll pull something together in these last couple of weeks of preseason and get our regular season rolling.
"We are doing pretty good in our timing and hitting and everything. I think everything is there. We just have to cut down on a lot of the mental mistakes and get our minds focused on playing a whole game." VU
Chapman Ready For Contributions
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