Line Anticipating Return To Full Strength

Pro Bowl center Matt Birk continued his return to practices Thursday morning and could put the offensive line back to full strength next week. The rookies were also displaying their post-hazing look while veterans claimed ignorance, and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell laid out what he's looking for during Friday night's preseason opener against Kansas City.

Matt Birk is back, and that means the Vikings could have their first-string offensive line fully intact during the final days of training camp next week.

There will be Bryant McKinnie and Mike Rosenthal at tackle, Chris Liwienski and Adam Goldberg at guard and, in the middle, holding it all together, will be Pro Bowl center Birk.

Birk came off the physically unable to perform list Wednesday and participated in his first practice of camp that afternoon. He also had his familiar No. 78 jersey on Thursday morning, lining up with the third-string offense inside Minnesota State's Bud Meyers Field House, where the Vikings were forced to practice because of rain.

Birk will not play in Friday's preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"It was good to see Matt out there again," offensive coordinator and line coach Steve Loney said. "He's a tough guy; he's a competitor."

He's also a fan favorite. The 6-foot-4, 309-pound Harvard graduate is a native of St. Paul. In his eighth year in the NFL, he's been picked for four Pro Bowls.

"He's like the rest of us; he's here to play football," right guard Chris Liwienski said. "When you get hurt, you feel like you're letting the team down. You feel like a fifth wheel.

"We're definitely excited to have (Birk) back. He's a Pro Bowl center. What more can you say?"

Purple Haze

Rookie hazing moved into full swing Wednesday night as many of the first-year players showed up to Thursday's morning practice sporting new hair-dos and a few less eyebrows.

Everybody from left guard Marcus Johnson to running back Ciatrick Fason to defensive end Erasmus James to right guard Chris Jahnke were displaying hair cuts only a mother could love. Offensive tackle Rian Melander may have gotten the worst of it, as a fourth of the hair from one side of his head was missing and the No. 51 had been shaved into the back of his skull.

Veteran defensive lineman Lance Johnstone, who wears No. 51, pleaded ignorance when asked about the head shavings after practice.

"I'm going to have to the take the fifth," Johnstone said with a sheepish grin. "I don't know anything about it. Maybe somebody is trying to frame me."

Most of the rookies refused to be interviewed or filmed after practice. James jokingly said "no photographs, please" as he walked into the lunchroom at Minnesota State University. When he returned, shortly after lunch, his head was smooth shaven.

"They all took it in good fun," Johnstone said. "Nobody got upset about it. But I hear sometimes those eyebrows take three months to grow back."

Cottrell holds court

Vikings head coach Mike Tice made himself unavailable to the media Thursday so defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell pinch-hit at the daily press conference. After the offensive and defensive units walked through some plays in the MSU Field House, Cottrell said the team was eager to take on Kansas City in Friday's preseason game.

"We want to win the game for one thing," he said. "We're hoping the starters will be out there for about 12-15 plays or less. We want to look at our young guys and see how well they're coming on.

"(We plan to) stay kind of basic with our calls and let their talents be displayed so they're not nervous about going out there in the Dome and playing. We're going to try to keep things very simple and just let the guys go out there and play fast and try to get out of this thing with no injuries."

One of the players expected to get a lot of playing time Friday is newly converted safety Ben Nelson. The former wide receiver out of St. Cloud State should see extensive action in the second half.

"He's going to play quite a bit," Cottrell said. "He's a pretty tough guy with good range. We know he can run fast straight ahead and he's been working on his back-pedaling.

"Plus he's got those hands, he can catch the ball. We've got some defensive backs with some Roberto Duran (Hands of Stone) hands, so we're trying to get that situation straightened out."

Missing in action

Defensive back Fred Smoot (calf), safety Dustin Fox (arm) and tight end Richard Angulo (shoulder) were all absent from practice Thursday morning.

First-round draft choice Troy Williamson (ankle) was there but was wearing a protective boot over his right leg and did not participate. Smoot, Fox, Angulo and Matt Birk will not play against Kansas City. Williamson is also unlikely to play.

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