Gerhart still has proving to do

Rookie running back Toby Gerhart was welcomed to the NFL with a couple of big hits Saturday, but his development goes beyond that. See what he and three of his coaches had to say about his progress and their expectations.

It was a "welcome to the NFL" moment. Toby Gerhart caught a screen pass, turned to run upfield and was met with an instant thud.

Defensive tackle Pat Williams may have lost 18 pounds in the offseason, but he still packs an impactful punch, even when other professional athletes are on the receiving end.

"I didn't know we were hitting that hard yet, but they might have tried to welcome him a little bit," said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. "He's working. Obviously it is his first time putting the pads on and getting behind the offensive line, seeing how fast things move. It'll take a minute, but he is going to be alright."

That last statement was referring to Gerhart's acclimation to the NFL, not his ability to recover from the hit. Gerhart popped right up after being sent prone by Williams. He also took a big hit from Jasper Brinkley and a little bit of an extra pop from Chad Greenway on two other occasions.

Call it a good day's work for the defense banging on the rookie.

"That's expected. Younger guy out here and it's the first day with some pads on. People are flying around," Gerhart said. "Yeah, I got hit twice, but that's good, you know? I feel like I'm playing football again."

Gerhart had a nose for contact when playing at Stanford. That, combined with his size, prompted some to wonder if he would be a fullback at the NFL level. It was a consideration he didn't embrace, saying he felt he was a tailback.

He certainly showed on Saturday he could take a hit. Now the second-round draft choice needs to prove he can be a reliable back.

The coaching staff didn't get to see enough of him in action during the offseason because of NFL rules preventing players on a quarterly system like Stanford from attending voluntary offseason practices until they graduate. He tried to make up for it with film study.

"He's very, very book smart. He's a very cerebral football player, but obviously we want to know that a guy not just knows it in the classroom but can he go out and display it on the football field. Obviously, he's behind from that standpoint because he didn't get the number of reps that he needed to get throughout the entire offseason," running backs coach Eric Bieniemy said. "But the thing is, we spent a lot of time – I mean we'd grind him for hours together just installing the offense, doing a lot of film work and to make sure he was on top of things, so he did make up a lot of that in the classroom.

"But you never know how good a guy is until you get him out on that field and get a feel for what type of player he is. … I want to see how consistent of a football player he can develop into."

The assumption is that Gerhart will be the No. 2 back after Chester Taylor left for the Chicago Bears via free agency, but Gerhart isn't assuming anything.

"There is too much unknown. You want to have confidence in yourself and believe you're going to get it, so every day I come out, work hard, compete and see what happens," he said. "You've got to come in every day and compete. That's the first and foremost thing. We're in the film room improving and helping each other out on the field. When you get your shot, you've got to take advantage of it. Make the most out of every opportunity and see how things play out."

After two days of practice, he is getting a lot of work with the second-team offense. He's shown good hands catching the ball out of the backfield, but coaches have been working with him to hit the hole immediately after it opens.

Some of the hesitation could be attributed to a lack of practice time, but Bevell said the coaching staff isn't going to slow down for any one player.

"We throw a lot at all these guys. We don't hold anything back. We do the installs as we normally would," he said. "One thing with him, he only had those three (practices at minicamp). He's handled that part of it well, the mental part. Sometimes, even though he's going in the right direction, we still may be thinking a little bit, over-analyzing things, which sometimes slows you down. He'll catch up. He's doing a great job just making sure his assignments are correct."

Despite missing numerous voluntary organized team activities, Gerhart does have one advantage over many rookies entering the league. The Vikings offense is similar to the one he ran at Stanford.

"It is pretty natural. It's pretty similar in terms of pass protections, the run game. They use the same terminology that we did at Stanford and I'm grateful for that," he said. "It's allowed me to pick it up quick. At the same time, there are different little minor details – the routes are a little different. But I think having some familiarity with it allowed me to pick it up a little faster."

Head coach Brad Childress said Stanford's offense under Jim Harbaugh and the Vikings offense "couldn't be any more similar."

Gerhart also has the advantage of knowing his position coach. Bieniemy recruited Gerhart to UCLA and secured his commitment, but after Bieniemy was hired as the running backs coach for the Vikings, Gerhart had a change of heart and went to Stanford.

"I've known him for a number of years and I just think he's going to be a great complement to what we have in Adrian Peterson," Bieniemy said. "He's a bruiser. I think Toby brings a different style. He's a guy that can take a lot of pressure off of Adrian at times."

After signing his rookie contract only hours before the opening practice of camp on Friday, Gerhart wanted to get out on the field and knock out the butterflies.

"I think I had plenty of time for butterflies. Sitting out here in Mankato (Thursday) night in an RV with my family, the two days prior to that, the butterflies started building up," he said. "As my contract was getting closer and (the first day) was getting closer, I started to get that little butterfly, that nervous twitch, the nervous itch to get out here and play."

Maybe the defensive players were just looking to help Gerhart with the butterflies.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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