Camp Battles Remain Heated

Three weeks into training camp and the battles for starting spots, and even roster spots, are as hot as ever. At least three starting spots still remain up in the air, and we take a look at their progress.

The battle Friday night was between the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Jets. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell made his return to New York. … Sam Cowart returned to the field where he recorded 299 tackles during the 2002-03 seasons. … Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!

The real battles with the Vikings are going on between teammates. With less than three weeks left until teams kick it off for real, there are still plenty of questions waiting to be answered with the 2005 edition of the Vikings.

A look at three fights worth watching:

  • Weakside linebacker: Dontarrious Thomas was anointed the starting label heading into training camp, but that was when E.J. Henderson was slated in as Sam Cowart's understudy at middle linebacker. Now Henderson has been moved over to be the starter on the weak side and Thomas, who too often appears overmatched in Cottrell's defense, is Henderson's backup.

    That could change. Those struggles might make linebacker the biggest weakness on the defense.

    "People can say what they want, but that doesn't mean it's true," veteran linebacker Keith Newman said. "When you start talking about E.J. and Dontarrious, those guys came in this offseason and worked hard and are picking things up now. It's a matter of those guys getting in a comfort zone."

    This is clearly a make-or-break season for Henderson, the Vikings' second-round draft pick in 2003. Thomas was a second-round pick in '04. Because of their weight as second-round picks, the Vikings will do all they can to afford both players every chance to succeed. The Vikings hope they see the returns soon.

  • Offensive line: This is a unit in distress, even if it is temporary. They struggled at times in their first two preseason contests against Kansas City and New York. Chris Liwienski has a sprained shoulder and missed Friday's game. Marcus Johnson moved to right guard to replace Liwienski and Adam Goldberg went back to left guard after practicing a few days at right guard. Center Matt Birk hopes to return for the final preseason game. And backup utility lineman Anthony Herrera is battling an infection and out indefinitely. Heck, head coach Mike Tice has more than once half-joked that he will call lineman Dave Dixon, who currently is an assistant coach for a Twin Cities high school football team, out of retirement.

    Other than that, life is well in the trenches.

    "We've got a new right guard (Johnson or Goldberg) and a new left guard (either Johnson or Goldberg, or even Liwienski upon his return). It takes time," Tice said. "We're not in sync yet. Everything I see is fixable. I certainly know they're smart enough. So they'll figure out."

    Your probable starting lineup for Friday has Cory Withrow at center, Goldberg and Johnson at guard, and Mike Rosenthal and Bryant McKinnie at tackle. Liwienski may be able to return to action as well. The Vikings are glad they have no concerns at tackle.

    "Both of our tackles had good weeks," Tice said last week. "The biggest thing I see is that we're not in sync between guard and center."

    Tice was more pleased with the interior effort against New York.

  • Kicker: The battle between Aaron Elling and Paul Edinger continues, and neither is considered a front-runner although Elling clearly has the stronger leg on kickoffs, which might be the deciding factor, and Edinger bounced a 37-yard attempt off the left upright Friday night before a penalty was called on the play, voiding that from the record.

    Considering there are still two preseason games and three weeks of practice before the opener, it's still a race too close call.

    One thing for sure, Tice will not keep two kickers — one for field goals and another as the kickoff specialist. "We will not keep two kickers," Tice said. "Read my lips."

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