Marathon Time For Young Ends

Kenechi Udeze was playing with a bum shoulder last season and hit the rookie wall. The coaches like the way he looks in training camp, and Udeze is hoping to help this year's first-round draft pick at end, Erasmus James, get used to the routine and ready for the long haul.

It was no secret the Vikings were disappointed in the perceived decline of production from rookie defensive end Kenechi Udeze, Minnesota's No. 1 draft pick last year, toward the end of the season.

Udeze started 15 games as a rookie, but fatigue and a banged-up shoulder led to less playing time down the stretch last season. The Vikings hope Udeze, as a second-year player, will last a full season rather than hit that proverbial wall so many rookies hit.

Even so, Udeze was third on the team with five quarterback sacks and had a team-high 21 quarterback hurries. But the Vikings expect more at left end from Udeze this season, especially now that 2005 first-round pick Erasmus James, who eventually could be the starter opposite Udeze at right end, ended his holdout and joined the team in camp.

"Kenechi needs to sustain throughout the length of a season," head coach Mike Tice said. "A lot of times rookies wear down late in the season, and certainly not only because of a the shoulder that Kenechi had fixed, but because of the fact that a lot of rookies wear down not only mentally but physically toward the end of the season. Kenechi was one of the those players."

Already Tice has noticed an improved Udeze.

"He seems more focused," Tice said. "He seems thicker. And he seems more stout, more muscular, and I'm sure he's got himself ready to sustain throughout the course of the season."

Udeze, who was a brief holdout last season, knows what James is going through this week. It is already difficult enough as a rookie to catch up with the major speed difference between college and pro. But James is practically two weeks behind in everything.

"It feels like an eternity," said Udeze, who fished with James a couple of times during the offseason. "Then when you get back everyone is moving so much faster. Then coming from college you haven't really adapted to the kind of speed you're going to see. For rookies, the speed of the game, they're not used to this type of speed. … Of course, (holdouts) have to take care of the other side of the business first."

Entering camp the Vikings had James slotted in as the nickel package pass rusher, but missing two weeks of camp changes that. On the depth chart James is still listed second behind Darrion Scott but ahead of Lance Johnstone at right end. But Johnstone will be ahead of James as the designated pass rusher for at least a few weeks, if not longer.

James said he isn't disappointed about that. "No, not at all," he said. "I'm always willing to live up to the challenge. I want to go out there and demonstrate what I can bring to the team."

But barring injury the day is likely not that far off where three first-round draft picks from the past three years (Kevin Williams in 2003, Udeze in '04, James in '05) will make up most of the Vikings' front four.

Udeze finally feels he belongs. "Now I'm at home at the left end position," Udeze said. "I feel very relaxed with the additions they got on defense. It's that much better to be around at this time."

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