EAGAN, Minn. – The first of two night practices this year has arrived at Vikings Training Camp presented by Omni Viking Lakes Hotel. The event at TCO Stadium provides a unique experience for fans but also provides a change-up appreciated by coaches and players alike.
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell spoke with media members Thursday afternoon and said he was "really excited" about Minnesota's night practice that he first experienced last summer in his first months at the helm.
"My first exposure to it last year, I was shocked by not only the turnout by the energy and the environment that we can create for a training camp practice," O'Connell said. "Very, very excited to see a packed stadium over there and have another very important padded practice. … It's been physical, we've been competing. We backed it down yesterday with an emphasis on getting the most out of tonight for our football team."
Here are four other takeaways from O'Connell's media session.
1. Good news for Trishton Jackson
O'Connell referenced Wes Phillips' Wednesday press conference, in which the offensive coordinator shared the good news that receiver Trishton Jackson evaded serious injury after going down during Tuesday's practice session.
"We're going to allow him to work through kind of some soreness in [the knee], but structurally, we feel really good about what the scan came back with," O'Connell said.
He added that Jalen Nailor is "still in his program" for rehabbing a contact leg injury suffered earlier in camp and that cornerback Andrew Booth, Jr., "more than likely" wouldn't be a participant in Thursday's practice.
"As we move forward, there will be a couple players that are still kind of in the process of [determining] availability for tonight, so I don't want to comment, really, on anyone else as of right now," O'Connell said.
2. 'Football 501'
O'Connell was asked if there's certain "benchmarks" he's set for his second Vikings training camp and where he's at compared to expectations.
The head coach explained that while there's been extra challenges against a new defensive system by Brian Flores, it's actually helped the team have a leg up heading into the preseason.
"We do have a new scheme defensively, and that not only requires our guys on that side to be dialed into the installs and the execution and improvement day to day while adding new things, but also offensively versus some of the new looks we're seeing," O'Connell said. "We felt good about our install plan a year ago. We are under a little bit more duress throughout certain down and distances and phases of our offense, which I think is fantastic for our team.
"We're having some growth and some conversations – quite honestly, a 'Football 501' that sometimes you don't get to have until Week 8, Week 9, Week 10, when the time is so crunched," O'Connell continued. "So to have all these conversations now with the extra time, and the experience of Year 1 in the system for a lot of guys, has been beneficial. But overall, just as a team, I think we're ahead where I thought we would be. And that's a credit, really, to Flo' and his defensive staff and our guys on that side of the ball."
3. Approach to camp physicality & schedule
In his second training camp, O'Connell has continued to place emphasis on player safety while still focusing on ramping up physicality in specific situations.
He explained the format of this year's schedule has placed a premium on getting the most out of padded practices when they happen.
"I just knew schematically the type of things that would inevitably run into each other pretty early on in camp," O'Connell said. "I preferred that it would be in pads, and I knew that those things would require physicality to execute on both sides."
O'Connell said he challenged the team coming out of OTAs and minicamp and "prepare them mentally" for what training camp would look like.
"Not only that, but the change in schedule. Last year we played a Sunday Preseason 1, and this year we're playing a West Coast, Thursday night Preseason 1," he pointed out. "So essentially, we lose three days of the early camp feel that you can feel. So I had to tell them and, as you guys know, there's really no secrets here. I emphasized to those guys why and how it had to be different, told them the reasons behind it, but then said, 'Hey, I need you guys to meet me in the middle on that with a physical camp and understanding that when we go, we've gotta go. We've gotta maximize on the field and what takes place in the meeting rooms after that."
4. Cornerback status report
The Vikings are operating with several fresh faces and new starters at cornerback this offseason, and O'Connell was asked to provide an update on how he feels about the position group.
He said the corners are "off to a really good start" of understanding what's asked of them in Flores' system. He also noted that the approach from play to play can change, and it's important for players to anticipate that.
"Whether it's a certain look where they know they may be on an island and they're reading their keys as far as the quarterback's drop, or whatever it may be, and then there's other looks where it's all about getting their hands on receivers and [disrupting] our passing game that doesn't allow us to have a rhythm," O'Connell said. "But then you're also working in combination with people, depending on where you are on the field. Communication. Those guys have handled a lot of that really well."
The next step for the group is consistency.
"Can we find guys who can handle everything about our defense in this competition phase?" O'Connell asked. "The best part about these [upcoming] joint practices [with the Titans and Cardinals] is that right around the time they get comfortable knowing what we do, knowing how we operate, we'll have two straight weeks – two practices each week – of 100-percent different philosophies, calls, and there won't be a lot of game-planning for that."