Will young backs have Favre's back?

The Vikings' offensive backfield got a lot younger and greener with the loss of Chester Taylor. A few of the young backs talked about Taylor's savvy, and the progressions they are going through in learning the art of the blitz pickup in the Vikings' system.

The questions surrounding Chester Taylor as free agency approached were many: How many years does he have left? Will he accept another three years behind Adrian Peterson? Does he simply want a better opportunity to start?

For all the questions, one thing was certain – Taylor brought a veteran presence and maturity to the Vikings' backfield. After Taylor's departure for Chicago, Adrian Peterson, with his three years of experience, is now the old man of the running back corps.

LaDainian Tomlinson's rejection of the Vikings has left the team with one major question at the position: How will the young guns handle blitz protection and keep their quarterback – Brett Favre or otherwise – from taking the debilitating and game-changing knockout?

Peterson and his three years of experience will have to shoulder a greater responsibility there and second-round draft choice Toby Gerhart is expected to see bulk of the backup snaps. But a couple of young backs looking to make the roster talked about the difficulties in replacing Taylor's abilities in blitz pickup.

"I feel real comfortable with it now. When I was in college that was one of the things that I took great pride in was knowing who was coming and how to pick them up within our scheme," said second-year player Ian Johnson, who spent last year on the team's practice squad after becoming a Boise State star.

"Our scheme in college, we didn't have this many people that we account for. Possibly three guys. In this system you could have up to seven guys that are your person, that you're responsible for. It's really a lot different, but once you understand the concept, everything makes sense. The biggest thing is to understand that you have to communicate – not just between me and my coach but me and the offensive line as the game is going and as the play is progressing, because if I think one thing and he thinks another thing we both look dumb. That was the biggest thing that I learned."

Johnson proved he could be a productive rusher in the preseason, averaging 3.5 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns, but blitz pickup is an essential part of any young running back's ability to garner playing time.

Darius Reynaud spent his first two seasons in the league honing his skills as a receiver, but this year the Vikings are giving him a try as a change-of-pace player in the backfield. The former high school running back will have a big adjustment in his assignments with that move.

Despite calling his move to running back a "dream come true," even Reynaud knows that blitz pickup will be hardest part of the position transition.

"That's the hardest adjustment. Anybody can run the ball, anybody can catch. The thing is protecting the quarterback," he said. "That's the main thing to focus on with the running backs."

Johnson called Reynaud's footwork "amazing" because of the things he has learned as a receiver, but deciphering the language of the running backs will take time.

"We've got a whole new language (as running backs) for him. His plays are normally decided that you've got this or this, and you can tell based on coverage what it's going to be. For us, you line up having a general idea of what you're doing, but it works off what the center is saying. Whatever he's saying, everything can change," Johnson said. "I think that's the biggest thing that's going to change for him. It's going to be tough, but he's smart. He's got a jump on it now. If he was more like me, where I came in at rookie minicamp where I had my head spinning, trying to change positions then that'd make it a little bit tougher. We're going through things a little bit slow right now so we can make sure he understands everything. I think he's going to be a very big asset for us."

Johnson said by the time preseason rolled around last year, he had a pretty good feel for blitz pickup, but he didn't get much of a chance to hone those skills in game action. Preseason doesn't usually feature many complex defenses and he was usually either running the ball or going out on a pass pattern by the time he entered the game.

Like Johnson, Gerhart will slowly work his way through the rookie progression at running back, but more is expected out of the second-round pick. If he's going to be a regular contributor during the regular season, he will have to get comfortable with the way the Vikings call on their running backs to protect.

The coaching staff and personnel department have touted his ability to block, but Gerhart is aware of what's ahead.

"There's always pressure," he said. "You're trying to make the team and replace a great player. They bring in a running back when a running back leaves. Those are big shoes to fill, but I'm going to work hard and try to do that – out-do what is asked of me and embrace the role I'm receiving and contribute to this team."

Johnson knows just how big those shoes are.

"Chester was probably the smartest person I talked to throughout progressions and throughout the game in general, throughout life. He's been here. He's done it. He does it well," Johnson said. "Learning from him was one of the biggest things that made me understand where I am today. I do lose that, but I gain this opportunity. I'm very fortunate to have had him for a year."


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