Big Year For Bennett

Personally and professionally, this is the biggest year of Michael Bennett's life. He needs to prove he can stay healthy on the field and is taking great measures in an effort to accomplish that.

For the third year in a row, the Vikings' training camp roster lists Michael Bennett at 209 pounds. The tale of the scale is always suspect; think about it: Pat Williams is listed at 317 pounds, which clearly brings to question the credibility of the vital statistics.

But one look at Bennett clearly shows a bigger, stronger running back. Bennett had an interesting offseason. He tweaked his training regimen and increased strength and size. He also hit the slopes.

"I ran Buck Hill three times a week and go some good work out of that," Bennett said.

For those unfamiliar with the Twin Cities, Buck Hill is a ski slope located on Interstate-35, 10 minutes south of the Vikings' practice facility. The ski slopes there are hardly mountains, but sprinting to the peak over and over was self-inflicting pain.

"I did a little different training this year," Bennett said. "Hopefully that will help me carry the load in training camp."

Make no mistake, there is no battle for the No. 1 running back spot. But there will be if — as in seasons past — he goes down with injuries. That's why Bennett appears bulkier. He hopes the added muscle will make him more durable.

"I leaned up a little more," Bennett said. "I'm not fat, but to have a little bit more muscle helps."

Bennett staggered out of the gates last season; a knee injury sidelined him for the first five games. A rotation of running backs led to Bennett starting just seven games in 2004. He finished with 276 yards rushing and one touchdown.

His 2003 season wasn't that much better. A broken foot suffered in the offseason forced him to miss the first half of the year. He started in seven of the final eight games of the season. His totals were ho-hum; he rushed for 447 yards and one touchdown.

The Vikings — and Bennett — hope he returns to the form he exhibited during the first two years of his career. In 13 starts as a rookie in 2001 he rushed for 682 yards and two touchdowns. Then in his second season Bennett had a breakthrough year. He rushed for 1,296 yards and five touchdowns. Most importantly, he avoided injury and started all 16 games.

Bennett hopes to rediscover that form from the '02 season.

"For me to do it my first year, then my second year, then to get hit with injuries after that it's one of those things that I've been working hard at," Bennett said.

This season is paramount for Bennett in many ways. His contract is up after this year, he has another child on the way. He wants nothing more than to stay healthy, remain the team's featured back, and secure himself a long-term deal with the Vikings.

"Michael is another one of those players who's got a lot to prove," head coach Mike Tice said. "It's a big year for him. He had another great offseason, which Michael always does. And we just need to knock on wood and hope Michael will stay healthy."

Bennett says he isn't thinking about the future.

"I'm really not thinking about it," Bennett said. "I want to play a full season healthy and give it my best. I leave the rest to the man upstairs. I don't have any control over the contracts or this or that so I'm not even going to get caught up in that."

"I love it here in Minnesota. Growing up in Wisconsin was great, but the state of Minnesota has treated me well and I want to be here."

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