Competition For Backfield Carries

With running back Michael Bennett out until at least midseason, position coach Dean Dalton is working his starting candidates hard in order to find the best solution for the backfield. Dalton, Onterrio Smith and Doug Chapman all comment on the battle, with neither running back lacking confidence.

Dean Dalton was enjoying one last vacation before the start of training camp when he got the call from Michael Bennett. The news wasn't good.

A screw that had been inserted in Bennett's left foot in late March had broken. Bennett, who had been expected back by the time camp opened, was to undergo a unique procedure on the stress fracture that could save his season and have him back in October.

"I had a sinking feeling in my heart when he called me and explained what had happened," said Dalton, the Vikings' running backs coach. "But that was more for Michael personally."

It would have been understandable if Dalton felt just a little sorry for himself.

Bennett was coming off a second NFL season in which he rushed for 1,296 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. His yardage total ranked as the second best single-season rushing performance in team history, trailing only Robert Smith's output in 2000 (1,521 yards). Bennett also set an NFL record as the only player in league history to post runs of 60 yards or more in three consecutive games.

He was the primary reason the Vikings led the NFL in rushing for the first time in their 42-year history.

"Losing him for an extended period of time is disappointing, but it's exciting because now we get to see who is going to step up," Dalton said. "Obviously, Chappy (Doug Chapman) and Moe (Williams) have the experience and we have a lot of confidence in those two. And then the young guys are all fighting for not just a roster spot, but also an opportunity to contribute to our offense."

The only certainty about the backfield situation is that Williams will remain in his role as the third-down specialist — or as Dalton calls him, "Our special back."

"He can do it all," Dalton said. "He's our third-down specialist, he has been the short-yardage specialist, he has been the red-zone, goal-line specialist. He's our safety net, our utility back. He could be your feature guy if he had to be. He's exceptionally valuable to the team. The rest of the guys are now competing for the role as the feature guy, the change-of-pace guy, the receiving back and so on."

The rest of the depth chart includes John Avery, Larry Ned, Onterrio Smith and James Wofford. The two most likely to compete for the starting job will be Chapman and Smith, a fourth-round pick out of Oregon. Smith didn't help himself by staging a brief holdout at the outset of training camp, but his skills could result in head coach Mike Tice, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and Dalton having short memories.

Last season, Smith rushed for 1,141 yards on 244 carries to finish second in the Pac 10 and 14th in the nation in rushing. He was an All-Pac 10 first-team selection and Oregon's MVP.

"I love the way he runs the football," Dalton said. "He's a powerful guy and what he does is special. He makes cuts in the hole. A lot of backs make cuts going into the hole or before the hole. But he makes them in the hole and he's a load (5-10, 214 pounds). He's a powerful guy, he slashes and has great balance and awareness when he's in traffic."

Smith, who also missed 14 days of the Vikings' developmental camp this offseason, made some mistakes in the early practices, but Dalton said he wouldn't back off trying to get Smith up to speed on blocking and passing schemes.

"I'm doing it like a good Italian cook," Dalton said. "I keep throwing the pasta against the fridge and see how much spaghetti sticks. I'm just going to continue to overload them until the saturation point shows up on the field where he starts making too many mistakes. When that mental overload starts to happen, then I'm going to have to throttle back and re-teach."

Smith, though, isn't lacking confidence when it comes to learning the system.

"I'm a Sagittarius, and if you go read about Sagittariuses you know they are one of the most intelligent in the groups we have," he said.

As for the opportunity the rookie has been presented with, Smith said: "I'm just excited to be here, period. Just to have been drafted. At the same time with Michael going down, which is an unfortunate situation, I feel the window of opportunity has widened. I'm ready to jump in head first."

So is Chapman, the fourth-year player out of Marshall whose season came to an end after six games last season when he was injured against the New York Jets.

Chapman, who has rushed for 284 yards on 75 carries in his career, has grown tired of being asked what Bennett's injury means to his opportunity to emerge.

"It wasn't like I was saying, ‘Oh, now I'm going to start playing better,'" Chapman said. "I have prepared myself every offseason like I'm going to start. …With Mike being down it opens the door that my opportunity will be more. Instead of getting four or five carries a game, I'll get like 24-25 carries a game. That's the way I look at it.

"It's unfortunate what happened to Mike as a friend of mine and also a teammate. But at the same time, as Coach Tice has said, when one guy goes down you can't just let the show stop there. We have to pick up the slack. I take it upon myself and take pride in knowing I am going to take up the slack. I'm looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge."

As for the potential of getting Bennett back this season — he started camp watching practice from a golf cart with his injured foot in a cast — Dalton only said that would be a "wonderful bonus."

"It would be frosting on the cake for our position and the offense because of the explosive nature of his ability," Dalton said. "If he wasn't so powerful and explosive he wouldn't have broken a bone in his foot running hard and then broke a titanium screw running harder. Those are just his natural gifts and talents that enhance any offense.

"We are looking at it like, ‘OK, he's my assistant coach.' He's going to have a learning curve year, and if we get him back, wonderful, fantastic. Right now, that isn't even close to being determined. That will come down to the medical staff evaluating things and Mike and the medical people making those decisions as we see what the prognosis is and he gets the cast off."

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