Putting It On The Line

When Mike Tice went from position coach to head coach in 2002, he had already built a formidable offensive line. He's hoping for the same from the defensive line this year, and early observations and comments indicate it could be sooner than later.

In Mike Tice's first year at the helm of the Vikings ship, the offensive line he built and tutored for years led the offense to the No. 1 rushing attack in the league. In Tice's second full season as head coach, the Vikings had the No. 1 offense overall in the NFL.

But what about the defensive line? It may have taken awhile, but the Vikings are hopeful they finally have the pieces in place to boast about strong lines on both sides of the ball.

"You win more games on the road if you've got a good defensive front and a good offensive line," Tice said last month. "You can run the ball on the road, and if you can get to the passer on the road and stop the run, you'll be better off on the road.

"We're going to win more games on the road with a better defensive front and better linebacker corps. Those guys will make our corners and safeties better too."

The process on the offensive front was pretty well completed with the drafting of Bryant McKinnie in 2002 and the free-agent acquisition of Mike Rosenthal in 2003. McKinnie has proved to be worthy of his first-round selection, and Rosenthal was serviceable last year and looking for bigger — literally, after his offseason workouts — things in 2004.

On the defensive side, the Vikings have tried to get better mainly through the draft for years. From reaches like Derrick Alexander over Warren Sapp (1995) to all-out busts like Dimitrius Underwood (1999), the track record wasn't good in the middle and late 1990s. However, after selecting Chris Hovan in 2000, Kevin Williams in 2003 and Kenechi Udeze in 2004, the Vikings hope to have three emerging first-round stars come forward all at once this fall.

The team's attempts to rebuild the defensive front this spring didn't end with the first round. Third-round pick Darrion Scott is a player the Vikings hope — and think — will make an immediate impact as well.

"Darrion Scott is a base end and he can play inside. … I think Darrion Scott is a starting-quality player," Tice said. "He's a big sucker too, and he's mean."

Said pro personnel director Paul Wiggin about Scott: "He's not a jerk, he's just all business once he gets on the field."

The Vikings were able to move down six spots in the third round and still get Scott, even though indications are that they had him rated as the third-best defensive end in the draft — maybe ranked as high as the 33rd player overall.

While other teams focused on positions of need and might have shied away from Scott because of concerns about his shoulder, the Vikings waited until the 25th pick in the third round to finally select him while filling a more immediate pass-rushing need with Udeze in the first round. It was a turn of events that had director of college scouting Scott Studwell pleasantly surprised.

"It was a receiver-rich draft that kind of set the tone for the whole first day. After the first five or six went, everybody was just grabbing for receivers, and it was a talented group of receivers," Studwell said. "Were we surprised? Yeah. Were we pleasantly surprised? Absolutely."

One Vikings source said the team is more concerned with Scott's history of shoulder problems than it is with Udeze's one-time injury, but either way the Vikings have assembled a cast of high-round talent on the defensive line.

Will it be as good as the group Wiggin coached in the late 1980s — Keith Millard, Chris Doleman and Al Noga? Wiggin isn't ready to go that far — yet — but he does see some immediate promise on the defensive front.

If promise turns into production, it will fall right in line with Tice's desire to win up front during slugfests.

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