The Forgotten Lineman?

The Vikings added nose tackle Pat Williams and end Erasmus James to the defensive line, but there is one starter from last year itching for a breakout season.

Free agency and the draft can make fans forget about what already exists. In April 2004, most draft observers felt the Vikings stood little chance at landing Southern California defensive end Kenechi Udeze with the 20th pick.

Instead, concerns over a shoulder injury kept Udeze on the draft board and the Vikings were more than willing to select him when it came their turn. Turns out, Udeze's shoulder did limit his production last year, leading to surgery this offseason.

"My shoulder is doing great. I haven't restricted myself from staying out of any plays or anything like that. I haven't missed any days yet; the surgery's doing good. I'm still rehabbing," Udeze said last month. "Thus far, it hasn't given me a problem, so I'm really excited about that."

Udeze says he doesn't regret bypassing offseason surgery last year "because it would have been the same thing. I would have been thrown into the fire. And let's say I would have been pushed out onto the field, I don't think I would have got what I got out of last year. I learned a lot last year, not only from the guys around me but just from playing the game. This year is going to be more productive and a better experience overall."

His rookie experience yielded 42 tackles, five sacks, 21 quarterback pressures, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Still, his shoulder problems limited his abilities on the field.

"Honestly, I couldn't really put up a fight as far as throwing a rip (a common technique used by defensive linemen) in there," he said. "But I've gotten stronger and the guys on the training staff have done a great job of helping me, rehabbing me where I can perform at this level. It shouldn't be anything but good news this year.

"This year I think is going to be a breakout year for me. I think with the way I approach every day and the way I work and how much I learn every day just listening to our coaches … I'm going to help the team as much as I can, and at the end of the season I'm going to have the kind of stats I should have had last year."

"I just know that I'm going to be up there with the best of them."

It wasn't like Udeze was a slouch last year. His five sacks ranked sixth in franchise history for a rookie defensive lineman, and only 2003 draft sensation Kevin Williams had more starts (16) as a rookie defensive lineman than Udeze's 15.

Udeze has even more talent surrounding him, too, this year. In addition to Pat Williams and James, the Vikings still have a Pro Bowler in Kevin Williams and a bulkier end/tackle in Darrion Scott. Youth is definitely a big part of the defensive line, but with the talent that youth possesses and at least one year under their belts for everyone besides James, Udeze thinks it will come together quickly.

"Last year I wouldn't say that we were all on the same page, especially throughout a good majority of the season, but we still had great individual performances out of the D-line as far as Lance (Johnstone) and Kevin and others," Udeze said. "Last year, I hate to say it, but as rookies it was kind of a learning experience. We had to adjust, but in years to come, starting this year, we're going to be a lot better. The chemistry with everybody they brought in, with Pat and Erasmus, it's just a better vibe than last year."

With youth also comes speed, and Udeze believes the combination of young, recently drafted talent on the defensive line and more experienced linebackers in Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris will help the Vikings apply the pressure on quarterbacks quickly.

Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell is expected to be more aggressive as he gets a more stable crew and has cornerbacks who can handle one-on-one matchups;

"The guys that we've got, you've really just got a second to blink before you get rid of the ball because we're coming," Udeze said. "He (Cottrell) is doing a great job of putting the defenses in and we're doing a great job of grasping onto them."

For Udeze, that means he feels much farther ahead in his knowledge of the game entering his second season in the league. And that, he hopes, translates into big production in 2005.

"You'd be surprised when you pick up something," he says, "it just clicks and it sticks with you. … This year I'm going to try and go in there and kick some ass, to tell you the truth."

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