Udeze's Role Refined

After the Vikings drafted defensive end Kenechi Udeze, most observers expected him to be the every-down starter in 2004. That might not be the case, according to defensive line coach Brian Baker.

For months before the 2004 NFL Draft, Vikings fans had speculated and hoped that defensive end Kenechi Udeze would still be available with the 19th pick. It seemed like a long shot, according to draft experts' projections.

So when the Vikings were able to draft Udeze in the first round, he was penciled in as a starter in most people's depth charts, including the one that matters most — head coach Mike Tice's depth chart.

"I would fathom to say he is starting as soon as (coaches support administrator) Sid Pillai handed me the new depth chart, which had him listed first," Tice said in answering his first question from a reporter after drafting Udeze.

"Like any player he could get stronger and he uses his hands real well. At times they might get a tad high in the run game. Most of the time college players come out, both offensive and defensive linemen, they are not really up on the usage of hands, which is what our league is really all about."

But after a three-day weekend of two-a-day practices in May's minicamp and seven more practices in June, Udeze isn't working with the first-team base defense.


"There are a few things he needs to learn, like the system and how he fits into that system, which is quite a bit different than what he was doing in college," defensive line coach Brian Baker said. "I'm always hesitant at this time on rookie defensive linemen because you don't know until you get the pads on."

The difference between Udeze and Will Smith, the only other defensive end in the draft most viewed worthy of a mid- to high first-round pick, was that Smith was being scouted as a player who might be more of a one-trick pass rusher. Udeze was viewed as a player who could play every down well — run or pass.

"He's got every-down ability, but this is a tough league," Baker said. "You look at (Baltimore defensive end/linebacker Terrell) Suggs last year — even guys that are great now, (Carolina defensive tackle Kris) Jenkins his rookie year — it's easier to talk about the exception to the rule. The exception to the rule is Kearse, and I can't even think of anyone else. Those guys just have phenomenal, freakish talent, (Carolina defensive end Julius) Peppers and those guys. If you've got freakish talent, then I think you can come in as a rookie and have an immediate impact. Other than that, I think you're a role guy.

"The reason I refer to Suggs is that I think they're similar guys, same conference, pass-rush guys. I think our guy is bigger and more powerful. Suggs didn't start to take off last year until they just relegated him to a nickel guy. They tried to give him the whole thing and he couldn't handle it. That's typical of rookies — it's a lot. To answer your question in a long-winded way, yes, I think (Udeze) is an every-down guy, but I'm hoping he won't have to be this year because I think progress-wise it's better just giving him nickel and not have him thrown to the wolves or anything."

That might not be the approach Vikings fans want to see for Udeze's progression, but underclassmen can take longer to adjust to the NFL game and Udeze entered the draft after his junior season at USC.

He played right end and left end in college while garnering 4.0, 7.5 and 16.5 sacks, respectively, in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. With the Vikings, he has been practicing at both end spots with the second- and third-team defenses, but Baker says he will play left end initially with Lance Johnstone at right end in nickel (passing) situations.

In the base defense, Baker expects Johnstone to be the starter at right end and Kenny Mixon at left end.

"Lance has virtually got to fall apart for me to not use him in the role that he's been used in the last two years," Baker said. "Ten sacks (in 2003) is a pretty good season. … In a perfect world role-wise for our guys, I think Lance's best way to contribute in a way that would impact is as a pass-rush guy, second- and third-down guy."

When the Vikings needed to get stout against the run last year after Kevin Williams was moved from left end inside to tackle, Chuck Wiley started the final four games at right end. For now, Baker's plan is to enter the season with Johnstone starting there and Udeze coming in at left end for Mixon in passing situations.

Nick Rogers, moved between defensive end and linebacker over the last two seasons, will also pursue a pass-rushing role, but he also brings the added bonus of being one of the team's best special teams players. "He is an impact special teams player and he's proven that the last two years he's been here, and I think his role as a defensive linemen would be better served as a pass rusher," Baker said.

"Nick hasn't done it and Udeze hasn't done it, and until they do it, my money is on the guy (Johnstone) that's done it."

* NFL Films will be following Udeze around during the team's charity golf tournament Thursday. They are shooting video for a show on some of the 2004 first-round draft choices, and Udeze will be one of the players featured.
* Cornerback Horace Willis was back at practice for the first time this spring. His NFL Europe season ended last season.
* Cornerback Jermaine Mays' Berlin team will face Frankfurt in World Bowl XII this Saturday. The game can be seen at 11 a.m. Central on Fox.
* Other Vikings allocated to NFL Europe this spring — Kane Anderson, a defensive end signed and released last summer who converted to tight end for NFL Europe, and wide receiver Ben Nelson — did not practice Wednesday.

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