The Sleeper

The Vikings are looking for the right combination of youth with potential and veteran experience. They are searching for improved defensive depth. They are looking for a special teams star. There is one sleeper that might fit all those qualifications.

Laroni Gallishaw's name has been mentioned by one coach after another this preseason.

When the Vikings dipped their toes into the pool of undrafted free agents immediately following April's two-day college selection gala, the team wasn't terribly excited with the outcome. Head coach Mike Tice was among the Vikings officials proclaiming that player agents didn't see a lot of hope for their undrafted clients making the roster in Minnesota.

Gallishaw is one undrafted rookie who says he didn't have many other options, but he appears to have a good shot at sticking with the club. Worst-case scenario probably would put him as a practice squad candidate, but the 24-year-old rookie cornerback out of Murray State might have a chance to make the 53-man roster if his special teams acumen continues during the final two preseason games.

Special teams coordinator Rusty Tillman lists Gallishaw among the leading candidates to secure the one roster spot held open for a coverage and blocking specialist on kicks and punts.

"It could be any position," Tillman said of that open roster spot. "The best special teams guy gets that spot – whoever plays best. There are about eight candidates right now."

Among Gallishaw's competition are linebackers Heath Farwell and Rod Davis and cornerback Ralph Brown. Brown is likely to stick with the team anyway because of his ability to immediately contribute competently if one of the top three cornerbacks is injured.

Gallishaw is also making an impressive showing this preseason as a cornerback.

"Laroni is doing real well. He's a smart football player – he's got good size, a good change of direction and he has a knack for making plays on the ball," coverage coordinator Chuck Knox Jr. said. "He's got a legitimate chance. He's been doing real well in practice.

"He's a strong kid and is real good in press technique. He's good getting out of his breaks. He's got real long arms to be able to get in there and knock the ball down. He's made some nice interceptions. He's real smart and he's a physical corner."

Before enrolling at Murray State, Gallishaw started for two seasons at Louisville. Eventually, he ran into some off-the-field issues and transferred to Murray State. While he faced some Division I receivers at Murray State, he says the toughest receiver he faced throughout his college career came when Louisville squared off against Florida State, meaning Gallishaw had the responsibility of covering Anquan Boldin, now a star with the Arizona Cardinals.

Gallishaw realizes he needs work on the finer points of his defensive skills to make a contribution on defense during the regular season.

"When you get into the NFL, you have to really rely on technique," he said. "Technique is a big key. That's the main thing I go out and learn everyday is my technique, more ways of defending the ball. It's way different than college."

He's learning from some of the best in the league in Fred Smoot and Antoine Winfield, considered by many to be among the top three cornerback duos in the league.

But for Gallishaw, his best shot at a roster spot is through his special teams savvy, and he knows that.

"My goal really was to do my best and make the team, do my best on special teams first and then worry about defensive back later," he said. "I adjust pretty quick. All throughout my (college) career I had NFL-type cornerback coaches that coached me. … They really taught me the ropes about how it was going to be when I got to the NFL level."

But even though he knows in his heart that special teams will be his initial ticket to the pros, it's still difficult for a rookie who has pride in his cornerback skills to fully realize that.

"It's really tough because you come in on scout team, like a freshman in college," Gallishaw said. "You've got to make that adjustment after being a starter for four years in college. It's a really big adjustment."

He will get another chance to showcase his special teams ability Friday night against San Diego. He and the others vying for one of the few remaining roster spots are expected to get extended time while the coaches make their final game evaluations before the Aug. 30 roster cutdown to 65 players.

So far, the coaches have liked what they've seen in their undrafted hopeful.

"Coach Tice pulled me to the side and liked my performance," Gallishaw said after the preseason opener. "If I just keep it up, he said I'd be a keeper."

And cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, a 14-year veteran of the NFL as a cornerback himself, did most of the scouting of Gallishaw, and the current player says the former player was particularly impressed with his physical features.

"He liked my physicalness on the field, and I could run with all my size and weight (6-0, 190). He liked that," Gallishaw said of Ross's assessment.

Even so, Gallishaw will have to remain focused on special teams to be a Viking in a month.

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