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Childhood 'Rock Fights' Helped Prep Dede Westbrook for NFL Punt Returning

EAGAN, Minn. – If you can dodge a rock, you can dodge a tackle, right?

"Exactly," Dede Westbrook affirmed.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Friday the new Vikings receiver is likely to be the first choice to return punts in Minnesota's season opener at Cincinnati on Sunday.

And while the special teams role certainly can be daunting, attempting to catch the hurtling pigskin while defenders barrel down, Westbrook is fearless in a high-pressure situation.

Asked about his intrepid approach, Westbrook laughed.

"Pssh, being a bad kid, I guess," he quipped. "I used to have rock wars when I was a little kid, 8 years old, throwing rocks at each other. That helped me a lot."

Westbrook, a native of Cameron, Texas, added that he and his peers also engaged in "Chinaberry fights," turning the small berries into makeshift ammunition.

"I mean, I'm from the country," he smiled. "I'm from a population of 5,000 people, so we've got to make fun, you know what I mean?"

From population 5,000 to attendances of 66,000.

This season will mark Westbrook's first with the Vikings, after he signed with the team this spring in free agency. He won't play a regular-season game at U.S. Bank Stadium until Week 3 when Minnesota hosts its home opener, but he's planning to be back in action for Weeks 1 and 2 on the road.

It's been almost a year since Westbrook played in an NFL game; in Week 7 last season with Jacksonville, he suffered a torn ACL that sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign – and much of the offseason.

Westbrook has slowly been worked in with the Vikings, and although there isn't a lot of sample size of him even in a purple practice jersey, he's confident heading into this weekend.

He emphasized there's been "no doubt at all" as to his return to the field.

"The doubts were back in [October] when it happened, you know what I mean?" Westbrook said. "At that point, I knew it was going to be a grind – continuing to get better each and every day, getting myself up in the morning, going to rehab and work out, so here we are now."

View photos of Vikings players from practice on Sept. 9 at the TCO Performance Center.

Over four seasons with the Jaguars, Westbrook recorded 47 punt returns for 461 yards (9.8 average) and in 2018 took one to the house for a touchdown.

"Hopefully he has a great game returning punts," Zimmer said Friday. "[Bengals punter Kevin] Huber's been there a while. He's one of the only guys I know from when I was here. He's a good left-footed punter."

Westbrook said he's gotten lots of special teams reps during practice and is "ready to go out there and be great."

He takes a lot of pride in punt returning.

"I feel like punt return, being back deep, I'm like the quarterback at that time — like, all eyes on you when the ball's in your hand, and so it's up to you what you're going to do with it," he said. "You have that opportunity, so when the guys … blocking for you [believe in you], you can make a lot of great plays.

"[It's toughest] whenever there's wind or things of that nature, but you've got to be able to see the ball, pretty much the nose guiding where the ball is going, and trust your technique," he added.

Westbrook hopes he'll have the chance to flash on offense, as well.

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Jan. 5, 2022.

The Vikings are set with starting receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, but there will be additional opportunities.

Zimmer said Westbrook will likely "get some plays" at receiver. He's no stranger there, either, as he totaled 160 catches for 1,720 yards and nine touchdowns in Jacksonville.

Thielen said Monday that Westbrook has impressed since arriving in Minnesota, whether on the field or not.

"Just learning the playbook, it's not easy just to come into a new team, a new environment and then having to pick up a playbook. And now he's starting to get mixed in there with the last few weeks of practice," Thielen said. "It's been impressive, his attitude every day, positive, trying to just feel comfortable again and be out there playing football, but I think he's excited to try to help out where he can."

Honestly, excited is a little bit of an understatement.

"My first day back at practice, I caught a pass and literally went crazy on the sideline, just from catching a pass," Westbrook laughed. "And J.J. (Justin Jefferson) was like, 'What the hell? What are you going crazy for?' I'm like, 'I ain't caught a pass in [almost] a year! This is surreal!'

"It's going to feel real great," he added.