Sophomore slump? Vikings receiver Keenan Howry was hardly around long enough to even attempt to handle the doldrums many second-year players experience. In fact, Howry might have welcomed a second-year slide. At least that would have meant he was healthy.
After a solid rookie season of emerging as the team's top punt returner in 2003, Howry took a step backward in 2004. Unfortunately, that step backward had to be made with his arm in a sling and his legs grounded.
Howry played the first three games of last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. As a rookie in '03, Howry set a Vikings rookie record with 247 punt return yards. In '04, he returned just two punts before getting knocked out of the Houston game and, eventually, the season.
Standing on the sidelines in civilian clothes on Sundays last year was not what he had trained for all during the offseason.
"It was really tough," Howry said. "I had worked so hard in the offseason to get where I was. I had great minicamps and developmental camps. For that to happen was tough."
Howry had shoulder surgery performed by a University of Oregon doctor during the middle of October. He stayed in Oregon for two weeks after the surgery, then rejoined his teammates in November at Winter Park.
"I missed hanging out with the fellas," Howry said.
Howry was surprised his rehabilitation took so long. Even with the bum shoulder, he had planned to still jog and take part in running drills. But because running affected his shoulder, doctors limited him to basic weightlifting exercises for his legs only. That meant no running.
"You think it's just a shoulder, but there's so much more. I couldn't run for two months," he said. "I couldn't lift. You don't realize how much your lower body suffers because you can't lift your legs. I was pretty much limited to leg-pressing machines."
The limited mobility frustrated Howry even more. "You don't understand how hard it was to just watch games on TV and do nothing else," he said. "It was painful to do. Finally, I'm out here and I can play again. It's a great feeling."
That feeling took longer to return than he thought. Even during minicamp in May and developmental camp in June, Howry considered himself 75 to 80 percent healthy. But by training camp last month, Howry finally felt 100 percent — for the first time in nearly a year.
A little more than a week from the season opener, Howry is back as the team's top punt returner. He has only one punt return in three preseason games, with two fair catches. But he is currently the team's top choice as a punt returner.
Kickoff returns might be another question. Howry says he can do both, even though he never returned kicks for the Ducks. Mewelde Moore is listed as the No. 1 kickoff returner on the team depth chart, but with several running backs nursing injuries (including Moore) the Vikings are still searching for a main returner on kickoffs. Rookie wide receiver Troy Williamson is possibility, as is recently signed running back ReShard Lee.
"I love Keenan, but I don't — in talking to Keenan — think that he can be a first-level, first-line kickoff returner, but he certainly can be a first-line punt returner, because that needs to be a position of more quickness anyway," head coach Mike Tice said. "He is always going to have the ball in his hands at the end of the play, but a kick returner needs to have some explosiveness and top line speed. We are still shopping around there, as far as on the roster."
Howry does have competition for the return duties on punts as well. Safety Darren Sharper is a possibility for punt returns. So is cornerback Fred Smoot although coaches probably won't favor that move until he is healthy enough to play full-time on defense.
Howry doesn't want to be "just" a special teams player, either. In training camp he has been building a case to be the team's fifth receiver, especially now that Kelly Campbell's health is still a concern.
Rookie Troy Williamson, Ryan Hoag and Howry are all battling for time behind Nate Burleson, Travis Taylor and Marcus Robinson. Entering Friday's preseason finale, Howry has six catches for 71 yards. Hoag has six for 81, and Williamson has three for 103.
"That's one of the things I think I proved to the coaching staff my first year," Howry said. "I think I really opened a lot of eyes in terms of my receiving ability. Once I got hurt, though, everything goes back to the drawing board."
Howry Hoping For Big Return
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