EAGAN, Minn. — Mike Priefer revealed a sneak peek of the initial depth chart Sunday morning.
Speaking to reporters for the first time at Verizon Vikings Training Camp, the Vikings Special Teams Coordinator said that as it stands now, veteran Marcus Sherels would be Minnesota’s punt returner and rookie Mike Hughes would handle kick return duties.
“I think his talent and his productivity in college, you’ll say, ‘Hey, he’s probably going to be the kickoff returner, and Marcus will be the punt returner’ as we stand today,” Priefer said of Hughes. “Then let them both compete in both spots, to be quite honest.
“And then we’ve got some other young guys who are going to compete as well that will take some return opportunities in the preseason games,” Priefer added.
Sherels is the most prolific punt returner in Vikings history. He holds franchise records with five touchdown returns and 2,171 punt return yards. The Minnesota native has been with the Vikings since 2010.
Hughes was Minnesota’s first-round pick in April. He had two kickoff returns and a punt return for touchdowns in 2017 while at UCF.
Priefer said the rookie has grown in the return game since arriving in the spring.
“He’s come a long way as a punt returner. … I think he’s done a really nice job. He’s taken it to heart,” Priefer said. “He’ll come in and watch some video on his own – we videotape everything – and we get a lot of close-up video.
“There’s some little things, bad habits that he brought with him from college. He’s already broken those bad habits, and he’s only going to continue to get better,” Priefer added.
Here are four other takeaways from Priefer and Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards’ podium sessions Sunday:
1. Always adapting
The NFL rules committee announced in May that kickoff rules will look a little bit different for the 2018 season.
Some of the tweaks include: the elimination of running starts for kickoff coverage teams, the requirement that eight of the 11 men on the return team must be aligned in the "setup zone" within 15 yards of the ball, the elimination of two-man wedge blocks and a rule that the kickoff team must have five men lined up on each side of the ball.
Priefer and Minnesota’s special teams units worked on adapting in the spring, and have continued to do so at training camp.
Priefer said Sunday he is always looking at ways to tinker with strategy and isn’t afraid to look around the league for ideas.
“We worked on it today with the kickoff returners in the half-field since the linemen weren’t there, but we worked on it a lot this summer,” Priefer said. “When the Jaguars come to town [in mid-August], I’m going to swap ideas with [Jacksonville Special Teams Coordinator Joe DeCamillis] because he’s been around the league a long time, and he’ll have some great ideas.
“I’ll kind of study and see what other teams are doing during the preseason and see if it fits what we do,” Priefer added. “I think we have a good plan, but like any plan at this stage with a new rule, you’re going to need to be ready to adapt if you need to.”
2. Honing in on Holton
Holton Hill had an impressive showing during Saturday’s full-team practice as he stood out during 1-on-1 drills against wide receivers.
Edwards has taken note of the Viking rookie cornerback as well.
“He’s done a good job thus far,” Edwards said. “He’s in a learning situation, but he’s got good length, he’s got good speed.
“We just look for him to come out here and be consistent with the calls and communications every day, the techniques and fundamentals,” Edwards added. “He’s still just working and coming out here competing every day, and that’s what we’re looking for him to continue to do.”
Hill was signed in the spring as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Texas.
3. Finding roster depth
Glance up and down the Vikings roster, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t contributed on special teams in his career.
Whether it’s been safety Harrison Smith on kickoff coverage or wide receiver Stefon Diggs handling punts as a rookie, nearly every player has chipped in on the third phase at some point.
Priefer said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has reiterated that point to a bevy of young players on Minnesota’s roster as battles for roster spots play out in training camp and the preseason.
“If you ask Coach Zimmer that question I know he will say they are very, very important,” Priefer said about the importance of playing special teams in order to make the squad. “He was in the team meeting, the first special teams meeting we had we included the whole team, so all 90 guys were in there.
“Coach Zimmer stood up in front of that meeting at the end and said ‘Hey, if you’re a backup on offense and defense and you don’t play special teams: A) you may not make the team, and B) you certainly won’t dress on game day,’” Priefer added. “So I think it’s a big deal, and it has been since I’ve been here. I’m very fortunate to have a coach and a general manager that supports that.”
4. Bower ready for year 2
Tashawn Bower was one of 11 defensive players to record at least one sack for the Vikings in 2017.
The second-year defensive end played just 10 defensive snaps all season but managed to bring down Rams quarterback Jared Goff late in the fourth quarter of Minnesota’s 24-7 win in Week 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Edwards on Sunday said he was impressed by how hard Bower worked this offseason, especially with his approach to the mental side of the game.
“He really worked hard this offseason. You can tell in his play. You can tell in his reactions,” Edwards said. “It’s really slowed down a little bit for him now. He can concentrate on the technique and the fundamentals.
“He’s not doing quite as much thinking as a lot of rookies do when they first come in,” Edwards added. “Let’s face it, college football is a different football game now from what we play in the NFL.”