Defensive Leadership Emerging

During draft weekend, defensive coordinator Willie Shaw was asked who the leader is on defense. He said he'd make a leader out of one of the players. At the Vikings' ongoing stretch of camps, one looks to be stepping forward.

The Vikings lost veteran leadership on defense in the early part of the initial stages of free agency. Gone off the defense are safeties Orlando Thomas and Robert Griffith, linebackers Kailee Wong and Ed McDaniel and a number of part-time players on the defensive line.

Those losses and the addition of some free-agent talent means the Vikings could have as many as nine new starters on defense. The only players that look to be safe are defensive tackle Chris Hovan and cornerback Eric Kelly.

With all of that turnover, a new defensive coordinator and a number of changes in position coaches on the defensive side of the ball, who will be a leader on the field?

Shaw indicated at the draft that he had talked to linebacker Henri Crockett about that, but another veteran presence looks to be stepping forward during the Vikings' developmental camps the last two weeks.

"Kenny Mixon without a doubt is doing a great job for us," head coach Mike Tice said when asked about a defensive leader. "You look at him running the sprints after practice, he is up in front, running to the ball after every play. I just think he really stands out in my mind.

"I think he has been everything we have asked for and more. I think the leadership part of it is something that is, I don't want to say it is unexpected, but I think it's there more than I anticipated."

It hasn't been by accident, Mixon told VU.

"That's just something I do by example," the 6-foot-4, 275-pound end said. "I'm not a big talker, I'm not a big vocal guy. I just go out there and try to lead by example."

The overall leader of the players, Tice, also encouraged Mixon.

"He [Tice] talked to me," Mixon said. "He said he wanted some older guys to come in and show some leadership. He knows that type of guy I am and knows the type of player I am. He expects me to come out here and do what I do, doing the things on and off the field that are going to put this organization in a positive direction.

"Leadership is doing the right things and doing the right things well."

Mixon has been front and center leading by example. Although the whole defensive scheme isn't in place yet, Mixon rarely looks confused by a defensive call. He doesn't appear to lose sight of his assignment, yet has the aggression and instincts to make plays.

While the fifth-year player acquired from the Miami Dolphins wasn't known as a big sack guy around the league, Tice pursued Mixon — whom he called the best defensive end free agent on the market this off-season — because the focus this spring has been on getting bigger and stopping the run.

That is where Mixon excels.

"Individually, just to go out and make a lot plays," Mixon said of his goals for the year. "I haven't been known as a big sack guy in the league, so I want to come out and make a difference there. I want to get the quarterback on the ground, but basically just to rush and make plays. That's what they brought me in for, to make plays and turn this defense around."

He has been doing that since being drafted in the second round in 1998. He has played in 59 games and started 50, with 175 career tackles, 6.5 sacks and three blocked kicks.

He and potentially nine other starters will be asked to turn the Vikings defense around, but there is at least one familiar face that Mixon can work with during defensive line drills. The Vikings also acquired former Dolphin Lorenzo Bromell to play more of a pass-rushing defensive end.

"It just adds to that unity and that camaraderie that we already have together," Mixon said of the Vikings acquiring him and Bromell. "We've been working together for four years, so it's not like I have to come and work with a new guy and having to be on the same page with a new guy."

That will be up to the rest of the defense … with Mixon leading the charge.

CAMP NOTES
* The current group working at punt return is wide receivers Nick Davis, Kenny Clark and Kelly Campbell, and running backs James Wofford and David Allen.
* Corbin Lacina and Everett Lindsay are splitting time at left guard.
* Rookie linebacker Nick Rogers isn't afraid to mix it up. He got into a scuffle with an offensive lineman (too crowded to determine who) during practice on Wednesday. While inter-squad scuffles aren't new to football, the players do appear to be brining a more intense practice attitude under the Tice regime.

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