Just like the offensive and defensive starters will play into the third quarter of Saturday's third preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, some of the main special-teams players who are expected to contribute during the regular season will be getting their first preseason opportunities.
"It's no different for us than it is for the offense or defense," said special teams coordinator Paul Ferrraro. "We expect to see improvement from those first two games. We're going to get some of our starters involved that haven't been involved in the first two preseason games, both on kickoff coverage and punt coverage."
That means that 2008 free-agent acquisition Maurice Hicks will get the majority of kick returns. Hicks averaged 22.9 yards per return on 185 returns in his four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Last year, Hicks had a pair of 55-yard returns against the Vikings in the second quarter and finished that game with 170 yards.
Hicks might also get some action returning punts, something he hasn't done yet this preseason and didn't do with the 49ers, but Aundrae Allison is expected to get his most extensive action returning punts. Allison has returned just two punts for six yards so far this preseason and Ferraro said it hasn't been determined who is the No. 1 punt returner.
"The hard thing with evaluating that right now is that he hasn't had the opportunities that some of the other guys have had, just from the standpoint of where the ball has been caught, the blocking that we've had and giving him a chance to show what he can do," Ferraro said of Allison. "So we want to get him more repetitions this week to find out exactly where he is. We don't have a number one returner right now."
Last year, that was Bobby Wade, who returned 16 punts but also called for a fair catch on 11 occasions. Wade averaged 7 yards per return and said he would be available to return punts again this year.
"I'm always available for that (punt returns), but we really haven't even had much conversation about it," Wade said. "They have some interest in seeing some of the younger guys and seeing how they would play out. Last year, I didn't take a lot of punt returns in the preseason either. So, coming into the season, when they start to cut it down on who they need and who they want, I think we'll see how it plays out from there. I still have an interest in doing it, want to do it. They definitely know I'm available for it."
Last year, Allison proved to the be the No. 1 kick returner, bringing back 20 for an average of 28.7 yards (a franchise record), but his role on offense is expected to be increased and the Vikings like what Hicks can do there, as well.
"Maurice Hicks is an outstanding kickoff returner, too," Ferraro said. "They're both kind of different in that respect, Maurice being a running back and Aundrae being a wide receiver. The fact that we have two, and one is a little bit faster than the other one. The other one of them maybe hits the middle return a little bit better. It was Aundrae's first year (last year), and for a first-year returner did a pretty good job. We certainly know we could use him back there. The fact that we have two, and even more options with Adrian Peterson maybe at some point if we need to, I like where we are there. The punt return is where we need to get it cleaned up, and that's what we're trying to find out this week."
The Vikings will also have their No. 1 kicker, Ryan Longwell, making his first appearance of the preseason. Rookie Steven Hauschka has been handling the kickoff, field goal and point-after duties in the first two preseason games in an effort to not overwork Longwell's leg, but the veteran is starting to increase his activity in anticipation of the regular season.
He is expected to handle at least the first-half duties Saturday.
"The only thing he hadn't been doing in practice is kickoffs. He's been, for the most part, doing his normal routine on field goals," Ferraro said. "A little bit less there because we have Steve in camp. He hasn't really had to kick off in practice."
After struggling at times during training camp with his trajectory and accuracy, Hauschka has hit all four of his point-after attempts and all four of his field goals – from 35, 21, 34 and 48 yards.