MANKATO, Minn. –Dalvin Cook knew the Vikings defense has garnered a solid reputation, but it took facing the unit firsthand to grasp the talent level.
The rookie running back smiled after the Vikings first training camp practice in full pads.
"Our front is serious," Cook said. "You got Linval [Joseph], you got Danielle [Hunter], our linebackers. Our defense is good, period. I didn't know they were [this] good until I got out there.
"We could barely get the snap off with Linval, and you got Danielle, [Everson Griffen], all those guys. Griff' comes off the edge, [Anthony] Barr, all those guys, man," Cook continued. "It's just fun watching those guys. And it's good to compete against those guys because once Sundays come, and the games come, it makes it easier."
Stefon Diggs took notice of Cook's performance and said Vikings fans have something to look forward to.
"I'm not a running backs coach, but I'm out there trying to block for him, and I have 100 percent faith in him that when he hits that second level, it's going to be special," Diggs said.
Saturday afternoon marked the first time Cook donned pads since he helped lead Florida State to a one-point Orange Bowl victory over Michigan on Dec. 30.
He welcomed the opportunity for extra contact.
"Physicality," Cook said. "You put the pads on, you want to be as physical as you can. You want to establish yourself early. I know these are my teammates; I want to take care of those guys, [and] they take care of me. We're just starting out right now, but you want to establish yourself, so once the game presents itself, you can be ready for any situation."
Cook anticipated the jump from college to the pros, but he sometimes is surprised at just how up-tempo the game can be.
"You take that next step, and it gets faster and faster," Cook said. "You come up here, you think, 'Can it get any faster?' And it does get faster."
He added that it's a matter of staying in the playbook and adjusting as necessary during practice.
Once a player is up-to-speed mentally, he can match pace on the gridiron.
"You have vets that have been out there seven, eight years, and they just know what to do," Cook said. "They're not as fast as you, but they know where to be at and how to do it. So you just have to study your technique and just be a mastermind at your game."
As Minnesota's defensive players help push Cook to be a better athlete on the field, they've also helped him develop off the field.
Cook has become close with a number of offensive players, including fellow running backs and quarterback Stefon Diggs, but he highlighted four names on the other side of the ball that have helped mentor him since being drafted: Griffen, Joseph, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes.
"I talk to those old guys, and I just sit back and watch how those guys do things in the locker room, around the facility," Cook said. "See how they conduct themselves around the team and stuff like that. They've been doing a good job of that, just checking in and seeing how I'm doing.
"You have to come in the building with the right mentality, ready to work, every day. Off the field, you have to know somebody's looking up to you, you have kids looking up to you. So you have a platform now," Cook continued. "You just have to be a pro at what you do, and those guys are pros that I look up to. They set a good example."
Smith aims to 'tighten up' defense in situation drills
Safety Harrison Smith has five Vikings training camps under his belt, but the sixth has been unique.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer vowed after the 2016 season that the team would work more on specific in-game situations, and he's delivered.
"That's one area that Coach has definitely ramped up," Smith said, noting this is the most that the Vikings have ever worked on situations. "That's what wins or loses games, and Coach has been really trying to teach us how important those are."
At the end of Saturday's practice, Zimmer called a third-and-1 situation. Kyle Rudolph responded with a play-action pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who made it into the end zone.
Smith said the defense needs to better react to similar scenarios.
"It was a good play call, honestly, from [Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur]," Smith said. "We should still be able to cover anything, no matter what the play call is, but that was a good one there. We just have to tighten it up a little bit."
Vikings rotate reps at center
Aside from Rashod Hill filling in with the first-team at left tackle since Riley Reiff was injured on Thursday, the Vikings have been alternating first-team reps at center between Nick Easton and Pat Elflein.
Easton was with the 1s on Thursday, Elflein was with the 1s on Friday, and each took snaps with the starting unit on Saturday.
Easton, a third-year pro out of Harvard, joined the Vikings in 2015 after a trade with the 49ers. He spent the final 12 weeks of the season and the Wild Card game on the 53-man roster but was inactive as Minnesota managed to start the same five linemen each week.
Last year, he made his NFL debut against Houston and appeared in 11 total games. Easton started the final five games of the season at center.
Elflein was the 70th overall pick in this year's draft out of Ohio State. He played one season at center for the Buckeyes after beginning his college career as a guard.
In addition to team drills, Easton and Elflein each faced defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen in 1-on-1 drills.