EAGAN, Minn. — The summer break clock is winding down, with Vikings rookies scheduled to arrive at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center on Sunday, vets reporting Tuesday and everyone hitting the practice field for a session open to fans on Wednesday, July 28.
Click here for ticket information for all open sessions.
We'll close our camp preview series with a look at special teams, a group that is under new direction by a familiar face. Ryan Ficken was promoted to special teams coordinator this offseason. He has been an assistant since 2007 with Vikings running backs (2007-08), receivers (2009-12) and special teams (2013-20).
Multiple specialist positions should benefit from an infusion of competition and valuable time on the field, as well as three preseason games that will be paramount to evaluating the battles.
As excitement grows for the start of 2021 U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp, here are three questions for Vikings special teams.
Q: Punter appears settled, but who is snapping and kicking?
Britton Colquitt is back to punt for his third season in Minnesota and 12th in the NFL. In addition to punting, Colquitt has solidified the holder spot since signing in 2019.
The 36-year-old already fended off a challenge by undrafted rookie Zach Von Rosenberg, who was released in June. Colquitt will be the pivot as battles at long snapper (between veteran Andrew DePaola and undrafted rookie Turner Bernard) and kicker (between veteran Greg Joseph and rookie Riley Patterson) unfold.
DePaola joined Minnesota for the final seven games of 2020 after erratic snaps forced the Vikings to part ways with Austin Cutting. When DePaola hit the field on Nov. 22 against Dallas, it was his first regular-season action since Sept. 10, 2018, with Oakland. He spent the rest of that season on Injured Reserve and did not play in 2019. DePaola, who will turn 34 on Wednesday, has appeared in 72 career games since 2014.
Bernard, who will turn 23 on Aug. 14, appeared in 51 games for San Diego State, including four in 2016 before receiving a medical redshirt (torn ACL). He twice earned prep all-state honors in Arizona and was chosen to long snap in the Under Armour All-America Game.
Joseph, who will turn 27 on Aug. 4, was a member of the Tampa Bay practice squad in 2020 during the Buccaneers run to winning Super Bowl LV. The Bucs "protected" Joseph from being signed to another team's active roster as an insurance policy in case Ryan Succop ran into any hiccups. Succop, however, was good all year long, going 28-for-31 on field goals and making 52 of 57 extra points.
Joseph has appeared in 16 regular-season games with Cleveland (14 in 2018) and Tennessee (two in 2019, interestingly in filling in for Succop). He is 17-for-20 on field goals and has made 34 of 38 extra points. Born in South Africa, Joseph also has three playoff games to his credit, helping Tennessee advance to the AFC Championship Game after the 2019 season. He made all nine extra points and his lone field goal attempt in that postseason.
Patterson racked up 432 career points, which ranks second in school history, in 51 games at Memphis. He netted 240 of 246 extra points and made 64 of 82 field goals, which was highlighted by a 47-yard, game-winning field goal against Houston on Dec. 12, 2020. The Illinois native will turn 23 in September.
Ficken described the approach to evaluating competitions.
"You want to make it as fair as possible so they're getting the same reps, because each day's different," Ficken said. "We have windy days on certain days and not on others, so you want to keep it as fair as possible, but at the end of the day it all works out. … Competition's a beautiful thing, and we've just got to make sure we're working to get better each day."
View photos of the Vikings 2021 coaching staff.
Q: Can the return games return to prominence?
Not that long ago, the Vikings featured some of the most harrowing punt and kickoff return units in the NFL.
Minnesota led the NFL from 2011-17 with 14 special teams touchdowns (seven kickoff returns, five punt returns and two blocked punts) with considerable impacts delivered by Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs and Minnesota's own Marcus Sherels on punts. Patterson recorded five kickoff return touchdowns from 2013-16 for the Vikings. Sherels accounted for all five punt return touchdowns for Minnesota in that span with one in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and two in 2016.
The Vikings have gone four seasons without a kickoff or punt return touchdown and would like to change that this year.
Minnesota drafted Kene Nwangwu in the fourth round and Ihmir Smith-Marsette in the fifth. Both are bringing heralded experience as kickoff returners at Iowa State and Iowa, respectively. Veteran Ameer Abdullah is back after leading Minnesota with a kickoff return average of 23.5 yards on 15 returns last season, and so is second-year pro K.J. Osborn, who averaged 21.6 yards on 14 returns. The Vikings ranked 17th in the NFL with a kickoff return average of 21.9 yards.
There's even more room to improve on last year's punt returns, which ranked last in the NFL with an average of 4.3 yards. The team's 69 punt return yards for the season was lower than that of three individual returns for touchdowns by Sherels.
Chad Beebe led Minnesota with an average of 4.7 yards on nine returns. He fair caught five. Osborn averaged 3.9 yards on seven returns and fair caught six punts.
View photos of the Vikings 2021 schedule at U.S. Bank Stadium and on the road.
Q: How will special teams determine the roster spots that are up for grabs?
Minnesota needed to rely on young special teamers in 2020 and a bit of a revolving door when injuries, particularly on defense, necessitated pulling a teamer off some responsibilities to handle a larger role in another phase.
Opponents averaged 24.8 yards on kickoff returns and 9.7 on punt returns. Minnesota allowed a 104-yard score by Patterson last season and a 32-yard punt return. Preventing big plays will be important as the Vikings try to restore complementary football.
With that in mind, Minnesota could rely on performances on coverage units to help determine final roster spots, particularly among linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties.
Below are links to the other positions we covered for this series:
Fans have the opportunity to see the 2021 Vikings in person at U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp later this month when practices at TCO Performance Center will be open to the public. Click here for ticket info about team practices, two joint sessions with the Denver Broncos and a first-of-its kind scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium.