Special Teams Challenge

The Vikings are preparing for the 2002 season with a new offensive coordinator, technically a new defensive coordinator and a new special teams coach. The last one, Jay Hayes, is trying to bring a more aggressive approach with new personnel.

During the 2001 season, Nate Jacquet and Troy Walters were the Vikings' primary kickoff and punt return men. Gary Anderson kicked field goals. Mitch Berger kicked off most of the time and punted.

But now and likely forever, none of those names are on the Minnesota roster. Special teams coach Jay Hayes, in his first year with the Vikings after spending three seasons in Pittsburgh and four seasons at the University of Wisconsin, has almost all new personnel he is trying to mold into better special teams units.

It's a multi-faceted job that requires him to switch gears often, working with punters, kickers, snappers, return men, coverage men and blockers all in a day's work. But at least in Minnesota he is getting the time of day to do that work. Several people have told VU that Hayes got a raw deal in Pittsburgh, being fired without getting the practice time necessary to develop successful special teams units. Hayes side-stepped laying any criticism with his former team, saying only "Do we practice it a lot more? Do I get more time here? Yes."

With all the new personnel, he might need it.

Coming off of three weeks of developmental and mini-camps, the starting jobs that Hayes will assign are far from determined. Players weren't allowed to wear pads in any of the camps, and the team didn't practice kickoff and kickoff returns a whole lot. Instead, Hayes concentrated on punt coverage and punt returns during the practices and worked with kicking field goals after practice.

As for punt returns, the Vikings appear to have a number of players fighting for the primary spot, and many are in the short, quick category of former Viking David Palmer. Throughout the camps, Hayes worked running backs James Wofford and David Allen and wide receiver Nick Davis as his primary punt returners. Also seeing time there were wide receivers Kelly Campbell and Kenny Clark.

In all, there was no NFL regular-season experience returning punts, so Hayes is keeping an open mind as to who is looking good without pads and without live game action.

"Until we get into at least a scrimmage or game situation — most of the guys can catch punts and do all those types of things — we'll just have to wait and see how it goes once we get into preseason," Hayes said. "They've been punt returners throughout their college career, but until we get them in some live situations it's too early for me to pinpoint one guy one way or the other."

Another that could lack in experience is the long snapper. Brody Liddiard has three years of NFL experience snapping, but the Vikings still have an interest in seeing how quickly center Cory Withrow can develop as a long snapper. It would free up another roster spot if a position player like Withrow can assume the snapping job, but Hayes isn't going force the issue at the expense of accuracy.

"That's something that we have talked about," Hayes said. "Brody is an excellent snapper, but you have to understand that we're not going to give away points just so that we can have one less guy. If Cory can handle doing it — and how we'll find that out is when the games come — until then, right now, Brody is our snapper. He's done an excellent job, and this is his third year snapping in the NFL. Those types of experiences you can't teach to guys. Snaps under your belt are something you need, and he has those."

While the expected starters at punter and kicker have NFL experience, they are new to the Vikings and mostly new to the Metrodome. Punter Kyle Richardson played in five games with Miami and Seattle in 1997 before becoming a four-year mainstay in Baltimore. When Mitch Berger left for St. Louis in the offseason and Baltimore let Richardson enter the free-agent market, the former Arkansas State punter went to the top of the Vikings' free-agent punter wish list.

"Kyle was one of the best guys available," Hayes said. "After the decision was made on Mitch, we just had to go out there and find who we thought could help us. Kyle was one of the guys we really liked. We liked him and [Matt] Turk."

While Richardson will likely be the punter, head coach Mike Tice has also declared that the Vikings are going to block some kicks in 2002. That led to hiring Hayes, who has implemented drills specifically designed to get players around the edge of a line and into the punting and kicking backfield. Hayes says it is more of an attitude adjustment for the Vikings to start blocking kicks than any overhaul in the roster.

"These guys last year at times went after kicks. You just have to be aggressive with it in your thinking," Hayes said. "When you get opportunities, you want to go after them at different places on the field. Attack people if they have a weakness. Blocking punts in this league is difficult, but you have to be prepared for the opportunity when they come out, and that's what we're trying to do.

"I don't know if you can get smaller than we are [at positions typically used to block kicks]. We have a very quick team. When you look at our team compared to where I've been before, we have a very fast, quick bunch of guys."

The final piece of the special teams puzzle is kickoffs, where Doug Brien comes in. When the Vikings lost Berger in free agency, it meant they had to find a way to make up for Gary Anderson's lack of leg strength in kickoffs. Eventually, after Tice agonized over the decision, he decided that the Vikings wouldn't be able to re-sign Anderson and take up another roster spot with a kickoff specialist.

After missing out on a kicker who can do both in the draft, the Vikings signed Brien, who brings far more experience to the position than a 2002 draft choice would have. Brien is entering his ninth NFL season, and has played with San Francisco, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.

The puzzle is starting to come together, yet still far from determined — with veteran kickers likely to assume their roster spots, and players with no NFL regular-season experience returning the ball fighting for that open employment opportunity. That is Jay Hayes' challenge in the next two-plus months before the Vikings' Sept. 8 opener in Champaign, Ill., against the Bears.

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