There is plenty of competition for the four or five running back spots on the Vikings roster, but, barring injury, coach Dean Dalton said the starting job already has been reserved for Michael Bennett.
This is not a case of the Vikings handing the job to their first-round pick in 2001. Bennett has earned — and continues to work on earning — his role as the featured back.
After a rookie season that featured plenty of rough spots, Bennett dedicated himself to the Vikings program this offseason. Recently married, he and his bride moved to Minnesota. He spent much of his time at the team's Winter Park facility, working and studying.
Dalton fully expects that dedication will pay off.
"I know Michael personally wants to be the man," Dalton said. "He wants to be the featured back and not just a home run threat. He wants to be an every-down back, he wants to be a third-down back, he wants to be out there for draws and screens, etc.
"That's what he wants. That's what we want, too. There has been a good focus in the offseason by him to come in and learn. We focused as well. We studied him as a collegiate back. We studied every play he had at the University of Wisconsin and saw exactly what he did well and exactly what he did consistently. We also saw exactly what he didn't do so well and didn't have much experience at.
"We have tried to expand on the things that he has done well, and it all fits into our system very nicely. He was a very durable back with obviously explosive ability. He's a stronger runner than most people think, and he has improved the little nuances in his game right now. He's running through traffic with higher knees, he's playing with a little lower pad level, he's beginning to understand the angles of the blocking schemes that his linemen are taking. You saw him show more patience the other night against Buffalo in his running."
It was fans who didn't show much patience with Bennett last season. Bennett walked into a tough situation, becoming the first running back to be selected in the opening round of the draft by the Vikings since Robert Smith was taken in 1993.
It was Smith whom Bennett was expected to help replace. That was a tall task, considering Smith had rushed for 1,521 yards and seven touchdowns in 2000 before his surprise retirement. Making things even more difficult was the fact that the offensive line that blocked for Smith and the line Bennett ran behind had different looks.
Todd Steussie had left for the Carolina Panthers during the offseason and Korey Stringer's tragic death in training camp caused further shuffling.
In the season opener against the Panthers, Bennett rushed for only 37 yards on 11 carries. He did not get near the 100-yard rushing mark in his first eight games.
But Bennett began to emerge in December.
He rushed for only 34 yards in a game at Pittsburgh but took a screen pass 80 yards for a touchdown. The following week against Tennessee, Bennett rushed for 113 yards on 16 carries, a 7.1-yard average, and two touchdowns. He added a 104-yard rushing performance on 25 carries at Green Bay.
Dalton expects Bennett's involvement in the offense to extend beyond the running game.
"He worked really hard in the offseason running routes and catching the football," Dalton said. "As he gets more reps and more experience in the passing game, we would like to see him be more involved in the passing game and catching the football out of the backfield as well.
"In protection, he's not going to shy away from stepping up in there. A lot of people remember Robert Smith as a great home run threat running the football, but Robert was an outstanding blocker in pass protection.
"We would like Michael to follow suit and do those things as well. He missed the protection … against Buffalo and thankfully Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss made a great play. But Michael will learn from that and not repeat that. He's trying to become a more complete back.
"He's beginning to understand our offensive system and our schemes. He's also beginning to learn to identify defenses and the assignments of the defenders, so that he can take advantage of their angles as well. We'd like to see him make some things happen, not just in the running game but be an excellent pass protector and be a threat in the passing game as well."
Dalton's continued references to Bennett's "learning" come for a good reason. He played limited high school football and was the starting running back at Wisconsin for only one season before entering the draft. His role in the Badgers offense did not call for him to be a complete player.
"His commitment to football has grown as he has seen success," Dalton said. "At the University of Wisconsin, he had four receptions. He had more than that against Tampa Bay last year. He really had not had any experience in the passing game. He was never asked to protect and he was just a featured runner.
"But he did have 310 carries and only one fumble, and it was caused by his lineman. He's been a very durable guy. Security-wise he has been outstanding. He has never had a fumble in his Vikings career. He is a guy that is learning every repetition and he gets better.
"It's fun because you see it when the light goes on. In the game at Buffalo, he did some very nice things and he made some mistakes. He was eager to talk about both the things he did well and the things he needs to fix for next week. You love to see that because he's an eager student and working really hard to become a better football player."
Big Expectations For Bennett
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