EAGAN, Minn. – Kirk Cousins is excited to have a second go-round with Kyle Rudolph.
The quarterback and tight end have one season together under their belts. And after another spring and partway through a second training camp, Cousins feels more confident about throwing to Rudolph in tight coverage.
Cousins spoke with Twin Cities media members following a practice in which he threw four touchdown passes. Two of the scores went to Rudolph.
“I can see already the chemistry we’re building with some of the younger players, and I even felt like with Kyle Rudolph, I’ve done a better job this camp of just trusting him more and even throwing it to him more when he’s ‘covered,’ ” Cousins said during his opening statement from the podium. “I think today, there were probably two or three examples of him catching the ball with the defender draping over him or pretty close to him. He is just such a trustworthy target, so little things like that, building a chemistry with him, you would’ve loved to say I did that last year, but I don’t think I did enough.”
Rudolph started every game for the fourth consecutive season in 2018. He caught 64 passes from Cousins for 634 yards but had only four touchdown catches, which was the lowest of any season that he played all 16 games.
Cousins was asked by a reporter if there was anything specific that enabled him to feel more confident making those throws to Rudolph.
“He just continues to show that when you throw it to him in those situations, he makes you right. He catches it,” Cousins said.
Cousins referenced Wednesday’s practice, during which Rudolph made a “really impressive” play in the back of the end zone.
“He ran out of real estate, stopped and just had to post up,” Cousins explained. “He did a great job of walling the defender without having a pass interference and then making a strong catch. He did a similar route in the front corner of the end zone at the end of practice, and he had a couple other during 7-on-7s and other periods and previous days, so the more you do it, the more you see it, the more you realize it’s a strength of his.
“I look back and regret, a bit, not doing that more with him last year and then look forward to this year and giving him more opportunities to make it right. When really everything in you is saying, ‘He’s really not open,’ but let’s give him a shot.”
While some might counter that Cousins and Rudolph had 16 weeks of practice during the 2018 regular season to build that chemistry, the quarterback reminded that practices don’t all look like the ones throughout OTAs, minicamp and training camp.
“When you really think about it, I think it was 13 practices last spring, and then you have training camp, and then from there you go back to scout team,” Cousins said. “It is hard to build that [trust] because the scout team guys aren’t really covering you; they’re just kind of shadowing you. The number of full-speed practices you have to build up that repertoire of understanding your players is not as much as you’d like to have.
He added: “I think the more years together tends to develop that.”
Thanks to Rudolph’s extension, the two will be able to continue working together, along with Minnesota’s other tight ends.
Three of Cousins’ touchdown passes Wednesday afternoon went to tight ends. The second of the day was an impressive grab by Tyler Conklin, who is entering his second NFL season.
The Vikings also added Irv Smith, Jr., when they selected the Alabama standout in the second round of the NFL Draft. Cousins said that Smith has checked all the boxes since joining the team.
“He’s worked hard, he’s shown that he can roll. He’s got great movement skills, and he’ll do whatever is asked of him. He’s a great teammate, and I think he is who we hoped he would be as a player and as a person. That’s really all you can ask for,” Cousins said. “Then it becomes just a day-to-day grind of teaching him the offense. Little things, like when I say, ‘set, hut,’ and then expect him to know that means he steps off the ball on certain plays.
“He’s just a little slower to step off the ball, because it’s brand new to him,” Cousins continued. “So, I got to pull him off to the side and say, ‘Hey, make sure when I say ‘set, hut,’ you’re stepping off quickly. I don’t want to wait for you.’ With Tyler Conklin or Kyle Rudolph, that’s just an instinctual thing. Little pieces of the offense, things like that that we just work through every day that we’re out here.”
There has been a lot of talk about the Vikings implementing more 12 personnel this season under Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski and with the influence of Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak.
Cousins acknowledged the importance of having a pair of dynamic tight ends to work with. He pointed out that it allows a team to better disguise plays.
After having mostly former quarterbacks as his position coaches over the years, Cousins said it’s been interesting and beneficial to work with Vikings quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, who played safety at Colorado State University.
“He thinks of the game a lot of times as a safety, and it’s a great resource to have,” Cousins said. “Kevin [Stefanski] was a safety in college [at Pennsylvania] as well, so I asked him, ‘What’s your eye progression? What does do for you?’ You realize as a safety or as a corner, as a linebacker, you have to have your eyes on your gap and in the backfield just as much you have on the guy that you’re covering. When you have tight end set, that’s really hard. That’s really tough on your gap discipline and then where your eyes need to be.
“If you have athletic tight ends who can also block who are versatile players, that gives us as a team a lot of opportunities to have a scheme that put defenses in a difficult place to defend us,” he added.