It only took one day for Toby Gerhart to get his "welcome to the NFL" moment.
In the first full-team session of the first two-a-day of training camp, the rookie second-round pick wasn't prepared for what hit him – an oversized serving of mammoth defensive tackle Pat Williams. Gerhart, who gained a reputation as a physical runner at Stanford, folded like a deck of cards and hit the deck.
Williams, who often expresses his lack of respect for rookies, thought it was funny and a chance to teach the rookie a lesson. Gerhart got the message.
"Maybe I was a little hesitant. The first time I got hit we were just in shoulder pads, first day in pads and I didn't know the tempo and I didn't want to try to bull over somebody," Gerhart said. "Once you get into a game, it's full go. It's full pads. (Saturday) is a game, so I think then I'll be able to be a little more aggressive and get my pads down a little bit more."
He'll get that opportunity in St. Louis in the Vikings' preseason opener. With starters expected to play only a series or two, Gerhart will see plenty of action.
He'll also have a chance to show his teammates how hard he can run during games.
"I think these next couple games are going to be an opportunity for me to show what I can do, whether it be running the ball, whether it be catching the ball, special teams, pass protection, whatever it may be. Just go out there, do what I can do and put good stuff on tape," he said.
In college, Gerhart built an impressive vault of highlights that culminated in winning the Doak Walker Award after rushing 343 times for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns and catching 11 passes for 157 yards in 2009.
The key, he says, will be getting to the point where he can relax and let his skills show through at the NFL level.
"At first, I was too focused on trying not to mess up instead of just relaxing and playing. Let the instincts take over and just do what I've always done," he said.
Vikings coach Brad Childress found out last weekend that Gerhart can pack a punch during live contact sessions instead of just taking a hit when he's not expecting it. And Childress is well aware that Williams and other defenders may have been giving a little extra to Gerhart in the early practices.
"By nature you are going to get knocked down. Some people may be doing some of the knocking down just in terms of good measure or just because," Childress said. "I think he just needs to learn a lot of things about the tempo. I had to stop him during a drill and say ‘Four yards is a hell of a deal in this and these holes open and close so fast.' The great thing is that when he gets knocked down, he gets right back up again and you appreciate that as well."
Gerhart seems to have learned his place in the hierarchical world of the NFL.
"I'm a rookie, that's what they're going to go for and take a shot on me and that's football. You get hit and you hit them back," he said.
"… I think they've eased up a little bit. The first time we'd just be running a drill and someone would lay a boom on me for no reason, but now they kind of tag off and I think they've eased up a little bit. … You're always trying to hit the ballcarrier; the ballcarrier is always trying to score. That's the game."
The game for Gerhart will be to continue to learn his playbook. He fell behind early in the offseason when he wasn't allowed to attend organized team activities because of Stanford's schedule and an NFL rule relating to colleges on late schedules.
He spent extra time at Winter Park going through film sessions with running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, but there is no substitute for on-the-field experience.
"I still feel like a rookie. Every day is something a little bit different, a little new. In terms of plays, I feel like I'm getting those down," he said. "(Early in the week) we threw in a little nickel, the 33 blitz package – that was a little tough for everybody. As you get more and more familiar with the blitz package, I'll get more and more comfortable."
And, eventually, he might earn the respect of veterans like Pat Williams. Maybe.
"I think I'm gaining it a little bit over time. It takes time. You're just a rook and everybody wants to see what you've got," he said. "More and more respect is going to be gained as the games continue and I get some playing time and show what I can do."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Gerhart aiming for respect
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