Perhaps the most notable thing to come out of the Vikings’ rookie minicamp is the team’s plan to sign one of the two rookie free agent punters they invited to try out this weekend.
Hey, punters are people, too, you know. And they’re particularly important when a franchise builds its foundation on running the ball, playing sound defense and maintaining favorable field position.
Incumbent Jeff Locke hasn’t been written off, but he will have to fight for the right to make it to a fourth season in purple. That’s because of a third season of inconsistent play that ended with him ranking last in the league in gross punting (41.6 average) and 30th in net punting (37.8).
So meet the contenders in this weekend’s competition to compete with Locke. In one corner is Texas Tech’s Taylor Symmank, who ranked ninth in the country with a 46.0-yard average despite battling a strained hip that limited him to nine games. In the eccentric corner is West Virginia’s Nick O’Toole, who ranked 13th nationally (45.4), got an invite to the scouting combine and grew so much facial hair as a collegian that he earned the monikers “Boomstache” in 2014 and “Boombeard” in 2015.
The Vikings were shocked when neither Symmank nor O’Toole were signed as free agents after last week’s draft.
“Talking with [coach Mike Zimmer], he said Jeff has one more year on his contract and we’ll see what happens,” O’Toole said. “He said for me and Taylor to come in and compete and whoever is the better punter this weekend will be signed and that guy is going to compete with Jeff. And that guy could win the job or he could just have his name out there for other teams to see.
“It’s a great opportunity for me. I like my odds.”
Of course, nothing in the NFL is guaranteed. If both punters fail this weekend, the Vikings can change direction and explore other options. North Dakota State punter Ben LeCompte, who had the fourth-best average in FCS history (44.6) last year, had a private workout with the Vikings before attending his hometown Chicago Bears’ rookie minicamp.
The first impression of the punters trying out this weekend is O’Toole is a big athlete for a punter at 6-3, 219 pounds. He also has a large personality that fans in the Mountaineer state grew to love quickly when he arrived after one season at Fullerton College.
“My first year at West Virginia, I had long hair and a mustache on my roster picture,” said O’Toole, who became a punter his sophomore year at famed Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. “I thought it would be funny thing that people could make fun of. But it really took off after my first game. I averaged like 50 yards or something like that, and we hadn’t had a strong punter since Pat [McAfee] back in .”
O’Toole finished second-team All-Big 12 with a 44.1-yard average, 22 punts inside the 20-yard line and 23 fair catches. So, yeah, he kept the ’stache.
“It was just your regular kind of porn-star style mustache,” he said. “But the fans loved it. They gravitated to me.”
The next season, O’Toole went with a handlebar mustache. His average dipped to 41.8, but 24 of his 57 punts landed inside the 20, while only two went for touchbacks.
Then he basically threw away his razor as he grew a full beard for 13 months. Picture “Duck Dynasty” or Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.”
“It was a lot of hair,” O’Toole said. “I had hairs falling out and some of them were like 8 inches long.”
But the mountain man wearing the No. 91 jersey earned first-team All-Big 12 honors. His touchbacks increased to 15 but he still downed 25 of 71 punts inside the 20 while forcing 18 fair catches and giving up only 89 yards in returns.
Friday, “Boombeard” sported just a hint of stubble. He’s not quite ready to draw too much attention to himself at the next level.
“I took it off right after our bowl game in Arizona,” he said. “Man, my face was cold. I think I’d have to wait a couple years to grow one if I made it to the NFL.
“If it’s here, I’ll definitely grow one. A Viking has to have a big beard, right?”