The Vikings' recent tradition – now running three years strong – of drafting a running back in the fourth round continues. While the pattern remained the same in 2005, the differences and backgrounds of the three fourth-rounders are very different.
The 2003 version, Onterrio Smith, is a strong runner with a weakness – he can't stay away from violating the league's substance abuse policy, and that character flaw has yielded a suspension from the NFL of at least one year. The 2004 version, Mewelde Moore, is a polite, thoughtful and intelligent being, one who graduated from Tulane in four years with a double major in accounting and finance. And, oh, by the way, was also playing minor league baseball while becoming only the second player in NCAA history rush for more the 4,000 yards and have more than 2,000 yards receiving.
Then there is the 2005 version, former Florida running back Ciatrick Fason, a slasher that is being favorably compared to Moe Williams.
"He has shown an ability to go forward. He's not a dancer; he's more of a Moe Williams-type runner," Vikings coach Mike Tice said last month. "You add him to the mix and we're pretty solid in there."
Like most rookie backs in the league, Fason has spent his first months in spring practices trying to wrap his head around the Vikings' playbook. He said the size of the playbook isn't that different than his college days, but the number of formations makes the transition from the Gators to the Vikings a challenge.
"They've got a lot of plays, and you've just got to get used to that and playing different styles of defenses that college teams don't run," he said. "That's basically the hard part."
If he can get comfortable with his new schemes, Fason could see some playing time. Moore made three starts last year as a rookie when Michael Bennett was injured and Smith was suspended for four games, and he looked like he might never give up his starting role. But after giving away the football on a critical fumble and then getting injured, Moore's playing time was limited. He called his critical fumble a rookie mistake.
Fason hopes to avoid Moore's rookie blunders and stay away from the off-the-field troubles that Smith has encountered. Even if Smith were still in the running for the starting job, Fason said he came into his first practices with the Vikings with the intention of working his way up the depth chart. Smith's suspension only speeds Fason's ascension.
"I watched (Smith) throughout Oregon and he had too many years in the league, where I knew he'd contribute," Fason said. "I was going to come in and try and work my way in no matter who was here – Onterrio, Mike, anybody – I was going to try and work my way in. It's a disappointment knowing Onterrio won't be here, but that's a step up for me. I've got to come out here, work hard and try to prove myself."
Hard work is nothing new to Fason. He and his wife worked their way through three years of college while supporting two children. His wife worked late hours at a restaurant, and Ciatrick's desire to end her long, hard hours was an overriding factor in his decision to enter the NFL Draft after his junior season.
"I had a family to support, and I always said if I had the opportunity to leave I was going to leave," he said. "When the (new University of Florida) coaching staff came in, that didn't make my decision. (It was) just me trying to support my family."
In early June, Fason was still looking for a residence in Minnesota. His wife came with him to Minnesota, and his children will join him as soon as he is settled.
However, money is no longer a factor. He is expected to sign his first professional contract in the next month and has already benefited from residual income that comes with being an NFL rookie.
"If I don't sign until July I'll be alright," he said. "I've got plenty (of money) to last probably all year right now."
He signed a lot of deals with card companies – about eight or nine of them, he said – and made some money through appearances since the draft. He is also anticipating signing an endorsement deal with a shoe company.
After further review, however, Fason said that money might not last the entire year because he bought a Yukon for himself and a Maxima for his wife.
To maximize his opportunities his rookie season, he needs to learn to pick up the complicated blitz schemes NFL defenses use. That is the first knock on rookie running backs vying for playing time in the NFL. If they don't protect the quarterback, they are often shuttled back to the bench in favor of a veteran who knows the assignment without blinking.
Fason believes his time at Florida will give him an advantage there.
"I think that's where being at the University of Florida helped the most. … We're a pass-oriented offense. Teams threw a lot of blitzes and I was able to pick them up, so that helped me a little bit," he said. "Now, being up here, you see people coming from all different angles and I know who to pick up, but then I've got to look out for secondary contain. I think being at UF helped me a lot with the blitz pickup, but I've got more to learn."
While one reporter who covers the Florida Gators told Viking Update that had Fason stayed for senior year he could have been a 1,500-yard rusher, Fason said he didn't think the Gators' philosophy of being a passing offense would change under new coach Urban Meyer. He said he met with Meyer several times, but ultimately Fason left because he wanted to support his family.
"I have no doubt in my mind that we probably would have won a national championship, and I still think UF is going to win the national championship just because of all the young players they've had come in the last two years."
Instead of being a cog in that drive, Fason will focus on trying to contribute to a team hoping to the win the NFL championship.
Fason Looking To Make Good On Early Entry
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