MANKATO – As the Vikings trickled off the practice field at Minnesota State Mankato and biked back to Sears Hall one final time to pack up their things and head back up Hwy. 169 to the Twin Cities, there didn’t seem to be much sadness about coach Mike Zimmer’s first training camp coming to a close.
That’s not to say the players didn’t appreciate the hospitality, the catered meals in the dorms and the sunburned, autograph-seeking fans (they did).
Or that Zimmer overworked them (he didn’t).
It’s just that the conclusion of camp puts them one step closer to the regular season and a new chapter of Vikings football.
And, well, it allows them to sleep in their plush, king-size beds again.
Zimmer described his first training camp as an NFL head coach as “productive,” and he accomplished many of the things on his checklist, answered a number of pressing questions and climbed into his truck knowing that his team departed Mankato relatively healthy.
“Hopefully I learned something every day about this team, but they haven’t disappointed me. They have been very willing to do whatever,” Zimmer said. “I like this team; they are good guys and they work real hard. As long as we play together as a team, we play real hard, we do the things that we are trying to coach them to do, then we have a chance to be a good football team.”
No, Zimmer’s first camp wasn’t anything out of Van Brocklin’s playbook or a Hollywood script. There were no grueling two-a-days. No devastating collisions. No practicing until players puked. Sure, the collective bargaining agreement played a major role in that. But as it turns out, the gruff guy we thought we saw on “Hard Knocks” a few years back is much more compassionate — and much savvier — than given credit for.
“We’re starting to get an identity,” safety Harrison Smith said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. But as far as kind of getting our mind-set and knowing what Coach wants from us, we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Zimmer wants his players to be fast and physical. But above all else, he wants them to be smart, which is why so much of this camp was spent teaching technique and drilling them on situational football so that nothing will surprise them.
That this was indeed a training camp and not a boot camp surely contributed to the Vikings suffering no major injuries during training camp. And outside of a rash of tweaked hamstrings that ravaged Zimmer’s unsettled group of defensive backs, the team remains healthy and fresh.
“So far, it seems like he has done a great job of managing us,” Smith said. “That’s not to say making it easy. Just making it productive. It seems like he has a good hold on that.”
As for a few key spots on his team, Zimmer is still grasping for answers as Week 1 nears.
The second starting safety spot is even more muddied than it was when the team arrived in Mankato. Because of injuries, Zimmer hasn’t been able to evaluate anyone next to Smith for an extended period of time. And Zimmer bringing in his old buddy Chris Crocker suggests he wasn’t pleased with what he was seeing from the guys who were healthy enough to be out there.
Beyond that, one would assume that Zimmer still is trying to figure out whether to start Jasper Brinkley or Audie Cole at middle linebacker, who will be his third cornerback and which bubble boys pack enough punch on special teams to warrant a roster spot.
The oh-so critical quarterback situation appears to have played itself out naturally, though.
Rookie Teddy Bridgewater has experienced growing pains over the past week, leading to questions about his confidence level. Meanwhile, Matt Cassel has hardly wavered and with another sharp performance against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night can lock down the starting job — if he hasn’t already.
Sure, these grueling — but not too grueling — days in the Mankato sun are done, but there is a lot of hard work left for Zimmer and the Vikings to do in the next three weeks before boarding a plane to St. Louis for the season opener.
“It was a tough, hard training camp, and I think we accomplished a lot and we got better as a football team,” Cassel said. “Now that’s got to carry over when we get back to the training facility back in Eden Prairie.”