Who Will Claim Feature Back?

When Michael Bennett wasn't able to open training camp and missed the first half of the season with a foot injury, it opened the door for Onterrio Smith, who came on late to showcase his potential. So what's the plan heading into next year? See what offensive coordinator Scott Linehan says.

Because of a foot injury that kept Michael Bennett out of the lineup for the first half of the season, the Vikings finished with a three-headed monster in their backfield.

Moe Williams led the team in rushing with 745 yards and five touchdowns on 174 carries (4.3 yards per carry). Rookie Onterrio Smith was second with 579 yards and five touchdowns on 107 carries (5.4 per carry). Bennett was third with 447 yards and one touchdown on 90 carries (5.0) per carry.

As the 2003 season progressed and Smith's playing time increased, he began to live up to his own preseason hype of being the "Steal of the Draft."

Smith was drafted in the fourth round, 105th overall.

"There was a lot of speculation why he was a fourth rounder. Onterrio certainly silenced those critics as the year went on. He really understood and accepted his role," said Scott Linehan, Vikings offensive coordinator.

"He stepped up and said that when he's called upon, he's going to play as good or better as the starter."

Even though a healthy Bennett is the front-runner when training camp begins in July, it should be one of the Vikings' more interesting races considering Smith's emergence as a big-play back.

Linehan wouldn't tip the Vikings' hand.

"One of them is going to be a feature back, and I'd be surprised if Michael didn't come back strong," Linehan said. "But he's certainly going to have to step up his game."

No one wants to push a 1,000-yard rusher — Bennett — out the door when injury was really the main obstacle standing between him and another 1,000-yard season. But the Vikings also know they may have someone who is just as talented, or maybe even more so, than Bennett waiting in the wings.

"We got a running back (Onterrio Smith) that could be elite," Vikings director of pro personnel Paul Wiggin said last week when asked about last year's draft picks.

The best scenario is that competition between Bennett and Smith in training camp 2004 will make each of them better, with a talented Williams in reserve as a veteran third-down and short-yardage back.

The talent and potential in the backfield may never have been deeper or better.



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