‘Reindeer' Has Chance To Fly

Second-round linebacker Dontarrious Thomas impressed observers with his speed at minicamp, but he and head coach Mike Tice both know that his position requires more than raw speed.

If speed kills on the roadways, a lack of speed was at least eating away at Vikings coach Mike Tice. While his No. 1 offense from 2003 featured athletes like Michael Bennett and Randy Moss with world-class speed, his defense didn't always need high-speed film to be photographed.

The Vikings looked to cure that this offseason, first with the free-agent signing of Antoine Winfield, a cornerback with extremely quick feet and a mind that speedily diagnoses plays. Then they continued the upgrade in the 2004 draft with Kenechi Udeze, a defensive end with a nifty stutter/shuffle step and proven college production, and Dontarrious Thomas, a linebacker nicknamed "Reindeer" who showed his sideline-to-sideline ability in minicamp earlier this month.

After those acquisitions, the Vikings like their chances to improve on last season's defense.

"We're bigger, we're more athletic, and we're fast. We needed speed," head coach Mike Tice said. "It was evident to me (during minicamp) when we went red zone how quickly the zones closed, how little time the receivers, the tight ends, the running back and the quarterback had to get throws in there, how quickly the run lanes closed up. When you get in that condensed area, that speed really shows up, and I think in that red zone, that speed really showed up. That shows me we're much faster than we were last year."

Thomas, who played three years outside and one year in the middle at Auburn, is one of the first players mentioned when it comes to upgraded positions, and he displayed respectful confidence during a discussion at minicamp.

"I think I have good speed to match up with anybody," he said. "I can get to the ball and have pretty good anticipation for the game"

Tice agreed: "Thomas is what we thought he is. He can run, he's smart, he's getting a lot of plays, going with the two's and the three's. I really like him."

For the second consecutive year, the Vikings selected a starting-caliber linebacker in the second round of the draft. Last year it was middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who is expected to start this season. The Vikings hope Thomas, who had 350 tackles in college, can run into a starting opportunity in his rookie season.

But those two insertions into the starting lineup have caused some concern at Winter Park, the Vikings' home base for spring practices.

"Dontarrious Thomas looks the part, but also right now (second-year pro) Mike Nattiel looks the part too. We've gotten much more speed at that position. That's a piece I'm concerned with because of the youth, not because of the ability," Tice said.

Like Henderson in his rookie season, Thomas is experiencing the growing pains of being in a position that requires play recognition on the fly.

When he arrived in the Twin Cities on April 25, he met with assistant linebackers coach Pete Bercich and had a briefing of the base defense. Two weeks later, Thomas was out on the practice field impressing Bercich with his speed while being inundated with the basics of a new system.

"It's kind of tough at times with so much going in (to the playbook during camps). The coaches are being patient with me, but I know I have a limited amount of time to get used to it," Thomas said.

His limited time watching the Vikings on TV while at Auburn last year didn't give him a sense for the system, but it did prepare him for the opportunity he has to enter the league as a starter and the potential the team has.

"You looked at those guys on TV last year and thinking about the situation," he said. "That's why I'm happy to be here, because I know we have an opportunity to do some good things."

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