Vikings' return men young and talented

The Vikings special teams units were oft-criticized last year, but this year a couple of young returners look like they are bringing life to the once-troubled areas. Percy Harvin and Darius Reynaud are already ranking high among NFL return men after one week.

In August, Darius Reynaud was fighting for a roster spot and uncertain of his future, like many other young NFL players as roster cutdowns approached. Earlier this month, he wasn't sure he would be active for games.

Reynaud's value continues to climb for the Vikings, thanks to his contributions on special teams.

"I was on punt return more in the preseason against the Texans, but they didn't punt a lot. … I hadn't been practicing it a lot," Reynaud said. "My main (work) was kickoff, kickoff return, and on punt return I used to be like the left guard, so my time just came up on punt returns against the Cowboys and I just took advantage of it."

He earned a shot at becoming the Vikings' main punt returner on Sunday in Cleveland and took full advantage of the opportunity, despite the challenges that Cleveland's left-footed punter, Dave Zastudil, presented.

"It was a left-footed punter. They say they are really dangerous. They are, so you've got to adjust to the ball," said Reynaud, who got a primer on handling the spin on those punts last week when the Vikings brought in left-footed punter Glenn Pakulak. "That really helped out a lot. He was really booting things and he was going with the wind, too, so it was kind of hard trying to adjust to it."

It didn't seem to be a problem for Reynaud in the game. He averaged an impressive 27 yards per return with a long of 36 yards. That has Reynaud in third place among NFL punt returners. He is trailing Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, who had an 85-yard return for a touchdown, and Detroit's Dennis Northcutt, who had a 43-yard return. Reynaud has even managed to have a better average than Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs, who had a 67-yard return for a touchdown against the Vikings.

Part of Reynaud's success could go back to his days as a running back – at West Virginia he had 1,550 receiving yards, 1,126 return yards and 410 rushing yards.

"On punt return, if you can make that first guy miss, you can take off to the races. I think I feel that's what I did. I made the first guy miss and just do what I do," he said, then explaining the running back skills that come into play on returns. "Just having good vision, running the ball and spotting my blockers. I'm like a running back when I have the ball in my hand."

Special teams coordinator Brian Murphy explained what helps make Reynaud effective.

"He's got very good lower-body strength and you will find that guys that can go the distance when you are asking a guy to make the first guy miss, it's not as simple as you have to rub off some contact," Murphy said. "He's got very good strength. He's explosive and he's got the long speed to go the distance. So he's got that package."

It's similar to the skills first-round draft pick Percy Harvin brings to the offense and the special teams.

Harvin had about an equal amount of rushing (1,852) and receiving (1,929) yards at Florida and is playing multiple roles on offense for the Vikings. He has also experienced early success in a return role for the Vikings.

Like Reynaud on punts, Harvin is ranked third in the league for kickoff return average. He is averaging 33 yards per return with a long of 41 yards and offers the Vikings another young, promising option in the return game.

"They're both really confident guys. They're both dynamic with the ball in their hands," Murphy said. "They certainly don't shy away from that role. We have had Darius here a little longer than Percy and neither one of those guys have ever shied away from catching punts or kicks."

FROM RETURNS TO OFFENSE

Harvin's role, while somewhat undefined from week to week, is still a large one on offense. As a receiver last week, he was targeted four times and caught three passes for 36 yards. He also rushed twice for 22 yards.

"Kind of like a new toy, (we) wanted to see all the bells and whistles and what we can do with (him)," said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. "So we put him in all kind of situations, all kinds of spots … whether it's handing it to him, whether it's throwing it to him in the passing game. As far as the game plan goes, it will be simple; it will be concise for him for each week."

"Definitely we can't come out of a game with zero touches (for Harvin). I don't think I want to put a number on it. We don't have a ‘Randy Moss rule' or anything. You got to get the ball in his hands. There are a lot of guys on this offense as everyone has talked about."

Reynaud won't see the field as much on offense, so for now he's focused on special teams, he said, and waiting for more four-wide situations later in the season.

NOTES

  • Running back Adrian Peterson said he didn't know until halftime that Jim Brown was in attendance when the Vikings were playing in Cleveland, but he said that didn't have an effect on him rushing for only 25 yards in the first half and 155 in the second.

  • Peterson said he received plenty of text messages from people commenting on his 64-yard run in Cleveland, but none of those came from LaDainian Tomlinson, who disagreed with Brown's preseason assessment in a magazine article that Peterson is the best running back in the NFL.

  • Peterson played a practical joke on WR Sidney Rice this week, driving home Rice's relatively new Maserati without telling the wide receiver.

    "I was trying to give him a hard time. I ran off in his Maserati. I took it on a little joyride," Peterson said. "It was nice. It fits right in my parking lot too – perfectly. I took it on a joyride and took it home."

  • Childress on how to go about covering 6-foot-5 receiver Calvin Johnson of the Lions: "I think the best thing to do is to try and get a stepladder."


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