EAGAN, Minn. — As he enters his 15th season in Minnesota, Ryan Ficken is used to being on the practice field this time of year.
It's what he's done in a variety of roles for the past 14 seasons — save for the 2020 virtual offseason, of course — whether it was as the Vikings assistant running backs coach, assistant wide receivers coach or assistant special teams coordinator.
Ficken held that final role for the past eight years. Yet as Minnesota's offseason program kicked off this week, it was Ficken who was in a new role as the Vikings special teams coordinator.
After the promotion was announced in February, Ficken waited nearly four months to get on the field for voluntary sessions with nearly all of the Vikings roster.
"It's been exciting," Ficken said Wednesday in a video conference with the Twin Cities media. "There's a lot of things we want to go ahead and accomplish obviously, things that we want to improve on and build on from previous years, but it's exciting to be in front of a group of guys.
"When we had the rookie camp last week I had some juice flowing a little bit," Ficken said. "And obviously on the first day of [Organized Team Activity practices] this week was a lot of fun. But at the end of the day, just getting on the field with the guys and being able to do what we love to do on a daily basis, it's a true blessing."
Ficken won't have much time to ease into his new role, especially with the spotlight that is seemingly on the special teams after a rough 2020 season for the entire unit.
The Vikings endured a midseason change at long snapper, kicking miscues in the final month of the season and punting struggles early on, not to mention inconsistencies in both coverage and returns on kickoffs and punts.
"Well, we have to improve a lot of special teams," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said last week. "We weren't very good last year in that area, and part of it is we've got to return the ball better on punts, we've got to return better on kicks, we have to cover better, we have to punt the ball better.
"All those things are a factor, so we're putting a major, major emphasis on trying to improve that area of the football team," Zimmer said.
And while the change at coordinator wasn't a surprise after the poor showings, neither is the fact that the Vikings are set to have plenty of position battles at nearly every spot on special teams.
Ficken said Wednesday that he's mindful of those battles each day at practice and is making sure players know how crucial each rep is.
"You want to make it as fair as possible so they're getting the same reps," Ficken said. "We are fortunate enough that the head coach and the personnel guys in [Vikings General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and Coach Zim' to allow us to have two at each [specialist] spot, so we can go ahead and have great competition for these guys at practice to make sure we have at least one set up for all the team periods.
"We're just looking to try and improve," Ficken added. "Competition's a beautiful thing, and we've just got to make sure we're working to get better each day so at the end of the day, when the decisions need to be made, we've got the right guy and we're ready to move forward and achieve our success that we're looking forward to."
At kicker, Greg Joseph and Riley Patterson will battle it out for the starting job. Britton Colquitt is the incumbent at punter, but Zach Von Rosenberg will look to challenge the veteran.
Long snapper Andrew DePaola spent the final half of the 2020 season with Minnesota, but he's competing with Turner Bernard for that gig.
A host of players — including rookies Kene Nwangwu and Ihmir Smith-Marsette — are also in the mix for both return spots and other special teams roles.
And if that's not enough fresh faces, Ficken is also helping guide Robert Steeples, who is in his first season as Minnesota's assistant special teams coach.
Steeples was a cornerback with Minnesota during the 2013 season, most of which was spent on the practice squad. But he did play in two games at the end of that year, including the final Vikings game at the Metrodome.
"Steeples has been great so far, he's done everything I've asked and he's gone way above and beyond," Ficken said. "I've known Steeps since he was actually a player here … he really was detailed, a note-taker, very thorough in everything he did, the way he approached the game. He wanted to talk about situations, the way special teams are involved in complementary football with the offense and defense.
"I always kind of took notice of that and followed his career as a high school head coach. His demeanor with the players, the way he can communicate with them," Ficken added. "This rookie camp that we had, he was able to talk to these guys like 'Hey, I've been in your position, this is the path I had to take.' He's been a really good sounding board for me in this process, he's got some great ideas in terms of scheme, technique, fundamentals. It's been fun to go ahead and bounce some things off of him."
Ficken's 15th season in Purple will be different as he finally gets the chance to lead his own unit.
He has been a part of some strong special teams units in previous seasons, and made it quite clear early in the offseason program that he wants to get the Vikings back to that level.
"We had a great first week of OTAs this week," Ficken said. "Really excited about the direction we're headed with this football team.
"It's a true testament to the players on this roster, coming in here and trying to get better," Ficken added, "so we can go ahead and achieve the goals that we have set forth for us for this upcoming season."