Mathis Shines with Opportunity

Running back Wendell Mathis had solid performances at running back and kick returner Saturday in his first extensive action as a Viking.

With a soft-spoken and deep voice, Wendell Mathis might seem like just another free agent rookie biding his summer on the Vikings roster until the player trimmings to the 53-player limit start.

But the 5-foot-11, 213-pound running back out of Fresno State proved Saturday night that he can contribute to the Vikings, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to stay a Viking.

"Honestly, my role is any position the coaches put me in. I'm going to do anything I can to make this team and get on the field," Mathis said.

That's the way it looked against the Steelers in Mathis' first extensive action of the preseason. He rushed eight times and tied for the team lead with 36 yards rushing. He led all Vikings running backs with a 4.5-yard average per carry.

Not a bad coming-out party for a player in his first professional season.

"I'm getting along just fine. I'm just getting into the playbook and trying to understand the plays so you can get on the field as soon as possible and show what you can do," Mathis said prophetically last week. "(The speed of the NFL) was noticeable at first, but football is football and eventually you catch up."

It would seem that "eventually" is now, and his background helped with his baptism into the league.

While Mathis rushed for 2,300 yards in two seasons at Fresno State, he started his college career at UCLA, where Vikings running backs coach Eric Bieniemy was his position coach. Stuck behind Maurice Drew, who was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mathis eventually transferred to Fresno State, where he was allowed to showcase his talents.

"(Bieniemy) was the one that I talked to before I actually agreed to come here," Mathis said. "He played a big role in my coming here. I had no idea he was looking at me or who was looking at me.

"Before the draft was over, probably around the fifth or sixth round, I started receiving phone calls, my agent received phone calls. One of them happened to be Coach Bieniemy. It seemed like this was the best choice for me.

"You get that sense of well-being. This was a familiar face in a strange place."

It wasn't and still isn't automatic that Mathis will find a roster spot on the team. He started out at minicamps with the fleet-footed Taurean Henderson as competition for a roster spot as well. While Henderson had an impressive collegiate highlight reel, Mathis' less flashy and more productive moves in minicamp allowed the Vikings to release Henderson and give the other running backs more repetitions.

"Naturally, because he was in my position I felt competition there, but in the bigger picture I'm in competition with every other free agent that's out here because we're all fighting for a spot on this team and we're all trying to make it as difficult as possible on the coaching staff to not release us," Mathis said of Henderson.

Mathis' familiarity with the Vikings offense probably played a factor in his quick transition as well.

His start at UCLA with Bieniemy and a similar West Coast offense helped make recall a bit less time-consuming. And he even ran a like version at Fresno State. Each version of the offense had some changes in verbiage, but Mathis is catching on just fine.

"I'm really comfortable in this offense and it is similar to something I ran in Fresno. It was kind of West Coast-oriented. I got the grasp of this offense pretty fast. Right now I'm just trying to execute all the little details in the offense," Mathis said.

With all his offensive production, Mathis was also able to get on the field and make an impact on special teams.

With Koren Robinson out for at least the Pittsburgh game and maybe the season, and Kevin Kasper, who returned kicks against Oakland out with a high ankle sprain, Mathis got an opportunity to be the Vikings' only kick returner Saturday. Naturally, he faired well there as well.

He averaged a solid 27.7 yards on three opportunities without the benefit of breaking a big one.

It seems that no matter where Wendell Mathis is put on the field, he's letting his performance do the talking.

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