Young Danielle Hunter’s prowess as a pass rusher was beginning to overflow last season when Vikings coach Mike Zimmer sat down with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer for a conversation Priefer has heard many times before.
“He was like, ‘Prief, we don’t want him covering kickoffs anymore because he’s really, really good [at defensive end],’ ” Priefer said. “So you lose a very, very good special teams player. But that doesn’t slow us down. Never has. It’s been ‘next guy up’ around here for a long time on special teams.”
There also was a time when Everson Griffen was one of Priefer’s standout special teams players. Ditto for Harrison Smith. And Adam Thielen, among other big names.
But then they became core starters with contracts to match. And, frankly, in the brutal reality of the NFL their health became too valuable to risk on special teams.
So Priefer is asked time after time to turn toward the bottom of the 53-man roster, where the residents are younger, cheaper and, hopefully, eager for some of the more violent collisions in football.
“That’s what I love, though,” Priefer said. “I fell in love with coaching special teams because you get to coach all the positions, especially the young and hungry guys.”
This is Priefer’s seventh season with the Vikings and 16th season of coaching NFL special teams. One more season and he’ll match his father and coaching hero, Chuck, who coached NFL special teams for 17 seasons before retiring after the 2006 season.
Since Mike joined the NFL, his units have scored 26 times, including a league-high 14 since the Vikings hired him in 2011.
“The bar is high because guys take special teams seriously around here,” said Marcus Sherels, who has rewritten the team’s punt return records since 2011. “That’s a testament to Coach Priefer. He pays attention to detail, he’s honest, he’s got good schemes and we play hard for him.”
Sherels owns the franchise’s top two single-season punt-return averages (15.2 yards in 2013, 13.9 last season), the career mark of 10.6 and the records for most punt returns for touchdowns (five) and 50 or more yards (seven).
Meanwhile, Cordarrelle Patterson became the first player ever to lead the NFL in kickoff return average three times. But then he departed via free agency after last season, leaving Priefer with the familiar task of starting over again.
Jerick McKinnon more than likely won that job with his 108-yard return for a touchdown against the 49ers in the third preseason game. The running back would join punter Ryan Quigley and kicker Kai Forbath as the victors in the three most hotly contested special teams battles this summer.
Other rookies and young veterans will be stepping into some of the more unsung special teams roles while the veterans watch closely.
“We have older guys in the locker room who have played special teams and now preach their importance to the younger guys,” Priefer said. “Andrew Sendejo was a great special teams player. He still leads our players-only special teams meeting every week. ... It’s a great culture.”
Priefer credited General Manager Rick Spielman for bringing in guys who “love the game of football.”
“And I always tell them if they don’t love the game of football, they won’t like playing special teams,” Priefer said. “It’s not easy. It’s what the Navy SEALs call violence of action. The violence of your action is going to cause you to do damage to the opponent, but it’s also going to cause you a little bit of pain and suffering, too. To me, this is a special group.”