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After Extended Lull, Vikings Appreciate Being 'Back on the Grass'

EAGAN, Minn. — Eric Kendricks' excitement to be "back to football" could be felt through the computer screen.

Moments after removing a mask — they are currently required in most parts of Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center — the Vikings middle linebacker spoke from an isolated room via video conference to members of the media.

"What's up everybody? Hope everybody is safe and doing well. Good to be back on the grass, that's for sure. Let's talk," Kendricks opened.

A sense of relief permeated his words, providing respite from a heavy-duty offseason drastically impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and increased calls for social justice after the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

Nearly eight months passed between the last time the Vikings took the field and Monday's first walk-through session for veterans.

In normal times, that would be a significant gap from what experienced NFL players have come to expect. Voluntary offseason workout programs usually begin in April and ramp up through mid-June before a summer break.

Under the weight of 2020, the extended window of time felt even longer but has made the reunion that much more special.

"Man, just being on the grass brought such a smile I saw across the board," Kendricks said. "Going from an offseason where you were just trying to find a field that was safe and you were staying away from people to a field that's really nice and pristine. It's a blessing that I get to play football, especially under these circumstances. I'm a person that I use that as my escape from reality. So just being out there and running around, I don't take it for granted."

Coming off his first selection as a First-Team All-Pro, Kendricks also cracked NFL Network's Top 100 Players of 2020. It was his first appearance in the player-voted list that began in 2011.

He's at a point where a normal walk-through could almost be cruise control, but players aren't taking anything for granted.

They've been willing listeners to learn and embody the best known health and safety protocols for preventing the spread of coronavirus and are readily making adaptations for their time spent in and out of the building. That includes wearing masks; adhering to distancing guidelines in the locker room, meeting rooms, cafeteria and therapy areas; as well as wearing contact-tracing devices during the day.

Entering his 10th season, Kyle Rudolph is now the longest-tenured player on the roster; he has been with the team through numerous changes and challenges.

"I'm extremely excited to be back here at the facility where I feel extremely comfortable and safe with my teammates and coaches," Rudolph said. "Obviously, a lot of uncertain times over the last few months, and for us to be able to be back here and to gain a small sense of normal, it's been good and it's been a lot of fun.

"I feel extremely fortunate and blessed to be in that situation and to feel as good as I do entering in to season 10," Rudolph added. "Although things are a little different for us right now — this is unlike any other training camp I've been a part of in the last 10 years — it is good for us on offense to be back out there and going through the walk-throughs with a small sense of continuity from last year. For the first time in five years, we have some carryover from the previous year. For me, it's my first time since Kevin Stefanski in 2014 and 2015 that I have the same tight ends coach two years in a row, so we feel like for us as an offense that's given us a little bit of a head start, being that we have carryover from last year."

Although Stefanski departed his 2019 role as offensive coordinator to become head coach in Cleveland, the Vikings filled the void by sliding Gary Kubiak into the position. Kubiak first joined the Vikings in 2019 as assistant head coach and senior advisor.

The continuity and overlap in verbiage should help returning coaches and players, even as accommodations are made to the traditional way of doing things.

Kubiak noted the increased space for small in-person meetings and the continued implementation of virtual meetings for large-group sessions.

"We're doing a combination of things but are very organized in what we're trying to do and how we're trying to keep everybody safe," Kubiak said.

Brian O'Neill is heading into his third season. The right tackle and other members of the offensive line are appreciative of the continuity that Kubiak and Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Rick Dennison provide for a group with four returning starters from 2019.

O'Neill described the focus on the details by the organization.

"It's an adjustment, but the guys here and the team here are doing a really good job," O'Neill said. "It's pretty hard to mess up the protocols with how on top of it everybody around here is. I'd say in another couple days, it's going to be no problem. Once we get into a routine, we'll get used to it.

"Nothing has really surprised me, just because of how prepared we were coming in, with the training staff and the equipment staff laying out how everything was going to be," O'Neill said. "It definitely takes a lot of getting used to, wearing a mask all the time. When I'm at home, or we're not in season, I don't have to wear a mask when I'm at home indoors, but here, we do. Once again, that's just part of the deal. If you want to be here, that's what we've got to do. If we want to be able to make this thing work, that's what we've got to do. So I'll do it; I'll wear it, I know other guys will."

The entire team is scheduled to have its first full practice on Aug. 17, three days after what would have been the first preseason game. With all of the preseason games canceled, the next game on Minnesota's schedule is Week 1 at home against Green Bay on Sept. 13.

Kendricks said he's thought about what everything will look like and pointed out that teams make multiple adjustments early each season as they craft their identity.

"I guess it depends on how many newcomers you have on each side of the ball. It all depends – how smart the team is in general, if they can adapt to concepts, pick things up quickly," Kendricks said. "I think at the beginning of the season, especially the first four games every year, everyone tries to get into their groove, see what they're good at, see what kind of personnel they like, and that's regardless of now or then anyways."

O'Neill said he believes the Vikings will be ready to go for Kickoff Weekend.

"Yes, absolutely. I believe in our guys and how they prepare us, our coaches and our conditioning staff," O'Neill said. "They do a great job. There's no doubt in my mind that guys will be ready."