The Emerging Ones

In training camp, coaches believed they'd settle into a lineup after the Week 5 bye. It took a little longer than that, but a number of young players are really starting to emerge.

In the midst of what will likely be a sub-.500 season, there is still reason for hope as some of the newcomers to this year's squad begin or continue to show flashes of long-term promise.

Not every offseason personnel move the Vikings made has worked out as planned, but many have. It's just taking longer than hoped for some to come to fruition.

Mike Tice described his choice not to re-sign placekicker Gary Anderson and opt for Doug Brien going into the season as the most difficult decision he's had to make thus far in his head coaching career. He got burned on that one.

His first draft at the helm promised quick returns, but things didn't exactly fall into place for Tice on that front.

Second-round pick Raonall Smith was quick to emerge as the first legitimate starter from the crop, then wrecked his shoulder and landed on injured reserve to wash out his entire rookie season.

Top pick Bryant McKinnie, penciled in as the starter at left tackle from Day One, held out for 98 days before finally agreeing to contract terms. He didn't get onto the field until Week 9 when he was thrown to the wolves to learn on the job.

Third-round pick Willie Offord has been, well, a bust to this point. He's been given every reasonable opportunity to start at strong safety from the get-go and quite simply has been unable to keep the job. It's still too early to give up on him, but he really needs to regroup and show a lot better feel for the game if he's ever going to be the answer.

Yet in recent weeks, despite the win-loss record, there have been incremental signs of improvement.

The early returns on moving Corey Chavous inside and starting rookie Brian Williams at left cornerback appear to be positive. Both were solid in their initial starts at their respective positions.

"We thought Corey played a really good solid game and we thought that Brian Williams played an excellent game," Tice said following the Green Bay game, the first start for each of those players in their new roles.

Chavous has been an instant upgrade over the younger guys they tried earlier this season.

"Yeah, the main thing you see about him is his reaction to the football," Tice said. "He sees things very quickly and then responds, which is very good. It's something that our young players haven't been able to do on a consistent basis, which is read it, respond, use your speed and get to the ball. I think a veteran player is very smart and a great anticipator; that's one of his traits. At the safety position he's able to be where the ball is a lot faster than the young players."

He could eventually become a terrific all-around player at strong safety if that's where he stays.

"Moving to strong safety is something that really looks good on Corey right now," Tice added. "He's got good speed when he's at corner, (but) he's a fast player when he's at safety. He's a very smart player, so he can decipher things back there very quickly and react very suddenly, which is a good trait to have as a safety."

He's also up to the task on run support and tackling.

"He is a very good tackler," Tice said. "We knew that coming in. It's one of the reasons we liked him. Without a doubt, he'll be up in the fray."

Moving Chavous inside also enabled Williams to get on the field more regularly and essentially got the best four players on the field.

"I think I've been playing pretty well," Williams said recently. "Starting off I was just getting adjusted to the speed of the game coming out of college. I think I'm getting better and better week in and week out. I think that had a lot to do with my success."

Williams appears to have the self-confidence, tenacity and toughness to be successful at the pro level. Many guys can run with receivers, but you can't really teach the qualities that Williams has shown.

"Brian is one of those young players who are starting to step it up a little bit," Tice said. "You need your young players to start playing for you if you're going to have any chance of being successful in the end."

Another rookie that Tice mentioned is strongside linebacker Nick Rogers.

Despite the conversion from being a down lineman in college, Rogers has shown more consistency at the position than the Vikings got there earlier this season. But the adjustment is significant, and he's still a work in progress.

"I think for me just the mental speed work," Rogers said when asked how the adjustment has gone. "When you're on the field for the game it's a lot faster than it is in practice. So I just think the speed and your mental preparation."

He also acknowledges that he needs to improve on pass defense and keep learning. "Yeah, my coverage," he said. "My coverage and my footwork, things like that. Just watching film and getting more familiar with my position that I am playing now."

Tice also singled out a pair of free agents from this year's rookie crop — wide receiver Kelly Campbell and safety Jack Brewer.

Campbell is a bit on the frail side, but his speed provides a role that opens things up for other weapons in the offense.

"With Kelly Campbell on the field we have the ability to stretch the field on both sides," Tice said. "He's a hundred-meter guy. He's the all-time leading receiver in Georgia Tech football history. He's a big-play guy. We're concerned about his size, so you have to really limit the amount of plays he plays. But he can stretch the field, which gives us an additional deep threat, which is something we've been yearning for since we started to put this thing together in March. I think Kelly down the road here, down this last stretch, will be able to give us some plays. How many? I don't know, but he'll be able to give us some."

At this point, Brewer shows more long-range promise than all the other safety prospects on the team.

Then, of course, there's the big guy — McKinnie.

"He is still learning as he goes," Tice said. "He is going to be a great player."

If anyone knows about developing young offensive linemen, it's Tice. His track record speaks for itself in that regard. With McKinnie, he's probably got the most all-around talented player he's ever had to work with.

Any hard feelings there were among his veteran teammates has past. His linemates are more than happy with his performance, especially having missed as much time as he did.

"Yeah I think so," Chris Liwienski said. "I think to be able to come in and play as much as he has and do a pretty solid job is excellent, especially at this level. He's only going to get better very week mentally and physically."



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