Defense Starting To Do It

With the top three picks of the Vikings' draft going on defense, that is obviously where the team hopes to show the most improvement. So who is getting talked about by team officials after two days of minicamp?

The Vikings are fairly young in their front seven, and they are especially young at linebacker. But if that youth can get up to speed mentally by the season opener, the indications at the rookies' first camp are that they've got the athleticism.

Speed is exactly what second-round pick Dontarrious Thomas brings to the linebacker corps.

"Dontarrious Thomas looks the part, but also right now Mike Nattiel looks the part too. We've gotten much more speed at that position," head coach Mike Tice said a minicamp practice Friday. "That's a piece I'm concerned with because of the youth, not because of the ability."

After a few more practices of observing Thomas and other linebackers, Tice had the same sentiments on Saturday.

"Thomas is what we thought he is. He can run, he's smart, he's getting a lot of plays going with the twos and the threes. I really like him," Tice said. "I'm impressed with the Grant Wiley kid from West Virginia. He's done some nice things while he's been out there. I like him. Mike Nattiel has been steady and solid. E.J. (Henderson) has been steady and solid.

"We need to have E.J. understand that because he's the leader in the middle there he needs to continue to improve on being consistent with his intensity. That's the best way to describe it. I spoke to him about that this morning, and that's not a bad thing. It's that young guys at times lose focus, and we need him to be consistent with intensity every single down. "

Henderson talked about him and Nattiel playing like veterans in only their second season, being a guiding force for Thomas. While it will undoubtedly take Thomas some time to get his mental speed up to his physical speed, he drew a "ooooo-weeee, that kid can run" comment from assistant linebackers coach Pete Bercich.

The rookie they call Reindeer is fast, and he respects the game, answering "sir" with nearly every reply to a question.

* One of the more comical sidenotes to Saturday's practice came from Tice after a catch made by tall tight end Richard Angulo. On Friday, Tice called Angulo "Richard." But after a reception across the middle on Saturday with no TV cameras present it was, "Nice catch, Dick … Big Dick" from Tice.

* Charles Stackhouse could have a tough time making the roster this season. Last year's fullback has been working with the tight ends this year, as the Vikings have essentially eliminated the possibility of keeping a full-time fullback on the roster. Stackhouse is working as an H-back, but he will likely get buried on the depth chart while attempting to make the transition.

* One of the most improved players in camp is safety Tyrone Carter. From coaches to owner Red McCombs, Vikings officials are saying that he has improved mightily from the time he left the Vikings for the New York Jets after the 2002 season to his return to Minnesota this spring. His understanding of the game seems to be what has driven his improvement.

* Last year, McCombs missed the Vikings' draft because his annual cattle auction was on the same weekend. This year, the auction held at McCombs' ranch drew about 400 people, including 60 bidders. The high cow went for $62,000, he said. A good average is about $4,000, he said, but the average last weekend was $5,775. There's a man that knows his numbers.

* Nattiel and Henderson are picking up where they left off last season, as the two nickel linebackers. Ken Irvin is the nickel cornerback.

* The rookie free agents getting the most favorable comments from various Vikings personnel are defensive tackle Spencer Johnson of Auburn, guard Anthony Herrera of Tennessee, long snapper Cullen Loeffler of Texas, wide receiver Lane Danielsen of Iowa State, who made two great grabs in the morning session Saturday, and linebacker Grant Wiley of West Virginia.

* It might not be all bad that a stadium bill got shot down Friday in the Minnesota House of Representatives. One Vikings official said that a tax-increment financing plan contained in that bill might not have given the Vikings enough financing for what they need. A bill that includes taxes from rental cars and alcohol sales could produce more financial support for the stadium.

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