EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Andrew Sendejo said playing special teams is like participating in a track meet in which the Vikings want to uphold a high standard.
Rookie Antone Exum Jr. views it, in part, as an opportunity to show he can handle responsibility at the highest level of football, and coaches believe there's value in and beyond each special teams snap.
Sendejo, who joined the Vikings as a free agent in 2011, worked his way up from appearing in three games that season to 13 in 2012 and all 16 last year. Exum, a sixth-round selection out of Virginia Tech, has played in every game and has seen his role increase to a higher percentage of special teams snaps the past three weeks.
Sendejo has played primarily on special teams this season, but he made 10 starts at safety in 2013. He credits his experience on special teams with helping him get used to the speed of the game.
"Usually what happens is you come in as a young player and you play on teams first and then if you work your way up, you play on defense, but it definitely gets you used to the speed of the game because the way I've always looked at special teams is it's like a track meet," Sendejo said. "The plays are generally the full length of the field, and the guys that are out there are out there because they can run, so it's a good way to get you accommodated to the speed of the game right away.
"It's a whole different animal than playing offense or defense," Sendejo added. "There's guys that are great offensive or defensive players that can't play special teams and there's guys that are great on special teams that cannot play a lick of offense or defense. Some guys are meant for it, some guys aren't."
Sendejo said the special teams units emphasize the importance of the plays to rookies.
"When they come in, we try to tell them what we've been about for the last couple of years and the standard that we try to uphold and what we try to do, bring them up to speed on what we expect and let them know that's basically where you, as a young guy, if you're not starting, that's where you make the team," Sendejo said. "If you're not a starter, the best special teams players after that are going to be the guys that make the team, so that's where you're going to contribute."
Exum took note and placed value on doing everything he can on special teams.
"Everybody has a role on this team, and mine right now is to do the best I can and be a force on special teams," Exum said. "Some people's roles are different, and they have to go out on defense and do the exact same thing, so right now, it's just kind of building maturity in the NFL and having to take on a responsibility and going out and doing my job every single Sunday. It's giving me some experience out there with the game speed and mental capacity of the game."
Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said Sendejo and Exum worked at safety with a "next man up mentality" during practices this week because of an ankle injury that Harrison Smith suffered Oct. 2 at Green Bay. Smith did not practice Wednesday, was limited Thursday and Friday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against Detroit.
Edwards has also talked with Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, who reviews film from practices and games to evaluate execution.
Priefer said performance on special teams units can prepare young players in case their roles expand to offense and defense.
"I think it's a great preparation for young guys because when they do have the opportunity to play more offense and defense their eyes aren't really huge anymore, they've already had maybe 15 or 20 punt or punt return reps in the first three or four games under their belt so they don't get as nervous, especially the young players," Priefer said. "The guys that have been around before, obviously it's a little different, but the young players kind of get accustomed to the NFL by playing special teams first, and when they're ready, they're ready.
"I think the coaches are going to find out – the defensive and offensive coaches – a lot about guys in how they perform on special teams and what their attitude is like," Priefer continued. "They will ask me how he's been in meetings, how he's been in practices because they're not going to watch that tape obviously. They'll see the games and how they perform in games."