Vikings coach Mike Zimmer believes that opponents have respect for his team after it finished the preseason 4-0.
“I do [think they’re ready], I think people are starting to recognize us when they put the tape on and they see how we play and they see the ability that we have and that we’re not making mistakes and we play hard,” Zimmer said. “I’ve had comments from other people around the league that have watched our tape and thought we looked pretty good.”
What did Zimmer like about his team’s play in his first stint as a head coach?
“We did a lot of good things [in four preseason games],” he said. “We did not have a lot of penalties, we didn’t turn the ball over, we didn’t make a lot of mistakes. So I think we played clean, hard, tough football.”
The Vikings certainly have room to improve after going 5-10-1 last year. Asked if this team can be a lot better than the 2013 version, Zimmer said: “I don’t know, we’ll have to find out when we go play. But I think we have done a good job in the preseason setting things up as far as the kind of mind-set that we want to have as a football team.”
Zimmer said he saw a few surprises among the young players on his roster.
“You know the running backs, [Joe] Banyard [36 carries for 212 yards and five receptions for 24 yards] and Dominique Williams [32 carries for 131 yards and three receptions for 17 yards], I thought those guys were a little bit of a surprise. Trying to think of who else, maybe [guard Austin] Wentworth is a guy that has done a good job. Defensively, [defensive tackle] Shamar Stephen has played pretty well for a seventh-round draft pick.”
Stephen played so well that he earned a spot on the active roster. But despite his impressive preseason, Banyard was among the Vikings players cut Saturday.
Schedule will be a challenge
If the Vikings are going to have any success, they are going to need to perform very well in their first five games of the season, when they face three playoff team from a year ago: New England at home in Week 2, at New Orleans in Week 3 and at Green Bay in Week 5. They open the season at St. Louis against a weakened squad that lost quarterback Sam Bradford to injury, and they play host to Atlanta in Week 4.
“It’s a tough stretch at the beginning, and we play some great quarterbacks and some great teams,” Zimmer said. “If we keep doing the things we do, we’ll be in every ballgame and have a chance to win at the end.”
Asked who will call the defensive signals from the sidelines, Zimmer or defensive coordinator George Edwards, Zimmer said: “I don’t know, we haven’t decided that yet. We’ve been working on it throughout this preseason. I’ve called some and George has called some. We’ll just have to see if I have to get real involved with some of the things on offense.”
Still believes in Ponder
Zimmer said he really liked the way that former starting quarterback Christian Ponder responded in Thursday’s preseason finale after not playing in the second and third games. Ponder went 12-for-15 for 121 yards for a 100.3 quarterback rating in the 19-3 victory at Tennessee.
“He was very good,” Zimmer said. “He did a nice job taking care of the ball, making the checks that we wanted him to make, and he did a nice job throwing the ball. I was impressed with him.”
Zimmer said he would keep Ponder on the roster and that there’s no question that the 2011 first-round draft pick can play in this league.
“I think [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner] and [quarterbacks coach] Scott [Turner] have helped him quite a bit,” he said. “I think he’s going to continue to get better. He has a good enough arm, he’s a good enough athlete, and I think the more he feels comfortable in the pocket the better he is.”
Gophers kicking game excels
One of the weaknesses of Jerry Kill’s team in his first three years as Gophers coach was special teams. But the play of the special teams and the kicking game in Thursday’s 42-20 victory over Eastern Illinois might have been one of the unit’s best displays since Kill took over.
Freshman Ryan Santoso handled the kickoffs, and junior Pete Mortell handled the punts. Santoso had seven kickoffs that averaged 63.6 yards and featured five touchbacks, a great start to his career with the Gophers. For comparison’s sake, in 2013, Chris Hawthorne averaged 62.2 yards per kickoff during his senior season and had six touchbacks on 62 attempts.
Santoso also went 6-for-6 on extra points but didn’t attempt a field goal. He was ranked as the seventh-best kicker in the nation by ESPN in the class of 2013.
Mortell, meanwhile, had five punts that averaged 51.2 yards, including a long of 61 yards. He had two punts downed inside the 20-yard line and two touchbacks. Last season, Mortell averaged 43.3 yards per punt and had a long of 62.
• The Timberwolves have to be thrilled with the way fans have reacted to their big Kevin Love trade, which ultimately landed them the past two No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett along with veteran forward Thaddeus Young. In the five days after the trade was announced, the Wolves website received more visitors and page views than in any other five-day period in team history. In that time the Wolves also sold more full-season-ticket equivalents than they had in the previous two months combined. That uptick in sales means the Wolves have already surpassed last season’s total season-ticket revenue with over a month to go before training camp opens in Mankato.
• Among the happiest Gophers football parents in the stands Thursday were Stan and Carolyn Edwards of Novi, Mich. They watched their son Berkley run four times for 60 yards and two touchdowns, including a 42-yarder. Both parents were wearing Gophers jerseys. Both Stan and Berkley’s brother Braylon played at Michigan on their way to the NFL. And when Stan was asked in a BTN interview if he will wear a Minnesota jersey when the Gophers play at Michigan on Sept. 27 to open Big Ten play, his wife immediately answered by saying, “He better.”
• Eastern Illinois hadn’t been shut out in 126 consecutive games, and until Jerry Kill emptied his bench with about seven minutes to play Thursday, the Gophers had a chance to break that streak.
• Former Vikings receiver Percy Harvin had seven catches for 92 yards over two preseason games for Seattle.
• Former Gophers safety Brock Vereen sat out Chicago’s preseason finale Thursday, but the fourth-round draft pick has a really good shot at a starting job.