Asked to compare the current Vikings with last season, safety Darren Sharper said he knows the 2008 team will be good, but he doesn't know how good.

"I don't know if you can compare it, because we haven't played any real games," said Sharper, in his 12th year in the NFL and his fourth with Minnesota. "I think the comparisons come when you play the regular-season games. It's too hard to tell in preseason how to compare a team, but I know this team is going to be a good team. That's something I definitely know.

"Having a lot of guys returning that played last year, [plus adding wide receiver] Bernard Berrian as the deep threat, we've got a lot of good guys that are going to definitely contribute to this being a good season."

Sharper is impressed with second-round draft choice Tyrell Johnson, who is filling in at safety for injured veteran Madieu Williams.

"Having that veteran experience is always a plus with Madieu, but Tyrell has been playing like a veteran," Sharper said. "He's ... getting out there and being in the starting lineup, and we expect him to play as though he is a starter. And when Madieu comes back, it's going to be an extra plus to have another guy that can be a starter, too."

Could this be Sharper's last year? No, he said. Sharper, who took part in a four-day "boot camp" at NFL Films in June to learn the basics of the broadcasting business, said he believes he is playing better than ever.

"I'm like a fine wine, a Cabernet-Merlot-Shiraz blend," he said. "It can do a lot of things. It's gets better as you open it up and let it get out there and air out, filtrate, do all those things. I don't even need a decanter, just let me go out there and run. Pour me in your mouth, suck it up and enjoy the run.

"[Be a] big TV commentator, or do what you're doing? Come on, man, and have to ask guys like myself questions like that? I'm not ready for that yet."

Could have been better

Nobody, except maybe the players themselves, expected the Twins to be contenders for the AL Central Division title this year. But they have surprised people, especially in the media, and been in the race all season.

And they could have been a lot better had they not signed a poor crop of free agents before spring training to fill holes in the lineup.

Now that third baseman Mike Lamb has been released, with the team eating the $3.8 million on his contract for next year, the Twins have gotten rid of most of the free agents they signed before the season. Shortstop Adam Everett is still with the team but has had shoulder problems most of the season.

You can credit Livan Hernandez for winning 10 games before he went into a real slump and was cut at the beginning of August. Outfielder Craig Monroe also was cut at that time, so the Twins' 2008 free-agent crop was pretty much a flop.


Twins catcher Joe Mauer swings at the first pitch only 9.2 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest average in baseball, according to a Twins survey. On the flip side, Twins outfielder Delmon Young swings at the first pitch 47.2 percent of the time, the second-highest percentage. Only the White Sox's Alexei Ramirez swings at the first pitch more (48.8 percent). Twins outfielder Carlos Gomez swings at the first pitch 44.1 percent of the time, the fourth-highest in baseball.

Philip Humber, a pitcher the Twins received from the Mets in the Johan Santana deal, is 5-1 in his past seven starts for Rochester and 2-1 with a 2.22 ERA in his past three starts. Pitcher Anthony Swarzak is 5-0 with a 1.89 ERA since moving up to Rochester. ... The Twins might have spent $1 million or more to sign their sixth-round draft choice, righthander B.J. Hermsen of Masonville, Iowa, who was all set to enroll at Oregon State on a scholarship.

The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission has postponed until Sept. 18 the selection of an architect who can show how much of the Metrodome could be used in the building of a new Vikings football stadium on the same site.

Former Gophers tight end Matt Spaeth of St. Michael is in his second year with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and apparently is going to play a lot.

"So far they're using me quite a bit," he said. "I'm the No. 2 guy behind Heath [Miller], but still playing a lot. Yeah we're doing [two-tight-end formations]. Every time I'm out there, I just make the most of it and keep them wanting to use two tight ends whenever they can."

Among the Minnesota natives on the Northern Illinois squad are offensive tackles Jon Brost, a senior from Maple Grove, Tony Holmes, a junior from Woodbury who is the son of former Gophers basketball player Gary (Cookie) Holmes, and Trevor Olson, a freshman from Richfield; Dan Edem, a freshman tight end from Eastview; and linebackers Corey Hanson, a junior from De- LaSalle who had 55 tackles last season, and Zach Larsen, a junior from Northfield. The outstanding Minnesota player on the Huskies is senior wide receiver Matt Simon from Farmington, who last season had 52 reception for 969 yards, an average of 18.6 per reception, and five touchdowns to lead the team in all those categories. ... There are 13 freshmen listed on the Gophers football offensive depth chart. There are six on the defensive depth chart.

Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith is taking part this week in Michael Jordan's Senior Flight School in Las Vegas. It is a fantasy basketball camp. ... Sophomore Trevor Mbakwe, the former Henry Sibley basketball star, has decided to leave Marquette and might play at Miami-Dade Community College.

Shawne Merriman, the outstanding San Diego Chargers linebacker who recently tore two knee ligaments, was here last Friday to have his knee examined by a specialist in knee injuries at the University of Minnesota.

Former Gophers hockey player Todd Richards has been named an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks. He previously was head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate. ... Jason LaFrenz, who has been the Gophers director of marketing and ticket sales, has been promoted to program director.

An indication of how strong the Gophers men's golf team will be this year: Senior Yu Katayama, who won the Minnesota State Open in July, is the No. 3 man on the 2008-2009 team. Victor Almstrom of Sweden is No. 1, and Andy Paulson of White Bear Lake is No. 2. ... Gophers golf coach Brad James said 12 of his former golfers will try to qualify for the PGA Tour this year. They include Bronson La'Cassie, Clayton Rask, David Morgan, Justin Smith, Matt Anderson, Wilhelm Schauman, Antti Ahokas, Simson Nash and James McLean.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast twice a week at