Hartman: Priefer brings out best in special teams

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2012 - 7:51 PM

The former Navy pilot prodded the Vikings to draft Blair Walsh and designed returns to produce two TDs last week.

Mike Priefer has become a hero on the Vikings coaching staff, first for pushing to draft kicker Blair Walsh -- who is 9-for-10 on field-goal attempts and has had 13 of his 18 kickoffs result in touchbacks this season -- and has done nothing but impress since replacing veteran Ryan Longwell.

And now the former Navy helicopter pilot has done a great job coaching the special teams, highlighted by Percy Harvin's 105-yard return for a touchdown with the opening kickoff and the 77-yard punt return for a score by Marcus Sherels that helped the Vikings beat the Lions 20-13 on Sunday.

The Tennessee Titans, the team the Vikings play at Mall of America Field this Sunday, also had touchdowns on a kickoff return and a punt return against the Lions two weeks ago, something Priefer and the Vikings noticed.

"I thought they might change, but we said just in case they don't, let's go ahead and do a base return, a similar type of return that we've done before," said Priefer, who was surprised Detroit didn't alter its coverage. "Percy set it up perfectly and then it was out the gate.

"We had a double-team on ... a 270-pounder, [Lions defensive end] Ronnell Lewis. We put our two big guys on the one big guy to slow him down. Since we didn't allow him to penetrate, that allowed Percy to get to the outside."

Harvin's coaches regard him as the best kickoff returner in the game, and he gets plenty of coverage by the media. But when it came to Sherels, who never returned a punt with the Gophers and was signed as a free agent and survived a difficult cut, Priefer pushed for him to make the squad and is a big booster of the Rochester native.

"He does a great job on punt return," Priefer said. "Obviously [he] broke two tackles and made a couple other people miss. He did a phenomenal job finding the seam and scoring.

"I've always thought he was quick enough and fast enough to do that. We haven't had a lot of opportunities lately to do that, so I was real proud of him. He plays on the kickoff team and made a great play on the punt team late in the game when he batted the ball back to Robert Blanton on the 2-yard line, which gave Detroit a long field with only [1:42] to go."

Was Sherels in danger of being cut with so many new players on the roster?

"Not in my mind. I was going to go to bat for him any time that I could," Priefer said.

Priefer is proud of his special teams, which include some starters on them.

"I thought we played well in the first two games and then in San Francisco, I was disappointed in the way we covered kickoffs," he said. "But overall they are playing hard. As I told them today in the meeting, we have a foundation built now. We have an identity that we're establishing about being a tough team, a fast team, and we just have to continue to get better."

Turned to coaching

Priefer had a lot of career alternatives besides coaching.

He went to the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated in 1989, then went to flight school. He flew helicopters in the Navy for about four years -- with three of those years flying during some very serious action in the Gulf War -- before begin his coaching career back at Navy in 1994.

"I was working in the physical education department, which was not a great career move, but I kind of back-doored my way into coaching and I was a graduate assistant there for three years before I got out of the Navy," he said.

Coaching had been in his blood because his dad, Chuck, was a high school coach when Mike was born and coached college teams and in the NFL for 17 years. It was Chuck who coached Walsh at the East-West Shrine Game in January and recommended him to Mike.

"I mean it was in my blood," he said. "I saw the effect [my father] had on people in high school. I would go over to practice and summer camp and I was a statistician as a 9-year-old, 10-year-old kid, for his teams. Even though I went into the Navy -- which I loved flying helicopters, I had a great time doing that -- it was just something that was always in the back of my mind.

"I thought about going into the FBI and being a helicopter pilot. I had a couple of my buddies do that that were ahead of me in school. It just worked out that I got into coaching and I'm glad I did. I love what I do."

This is Priefer's 11th year coaching in the NFL. He started his NFL coaching career in 2002 in Jacksonville, where he spent one year, then worked three years with the Giants, three years with the Chiefs and two years with the Broncos. This is his second year in Minnesota.

Jottings

• Wild owner Craig Leipold probably is getting hit hard financially by the NHL lockout. Leipold has owned the team since 2008 and has lost money every single year. With a big season-ticket sale this year after the team put together a great roster, including the signing of prominent free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, Leipold believed he had a chance to get some of his losses back. But now it appears it will be quite a while before there s a season.

• Before the Gophers football season started, it was pretty well understood that the number of games the Maroon and Gold would win would depend on keeping quarterback MarQueis Gray healthy. Gray, who sprained his left ankle against Western Michigan game on Sept. 15, is a long way from being ready to play. Said Gophers coach Jerry Kill: "The bye week will certainly help, but I'd be surprised if he will be ready to go against Northwestern [on Oct. 13]."

• On another subject, Kill said the team really missed defensive back Brock Vereen in last week's 31-13 loss to Iowa. He injured his knee in practice last week and played about 10 plays against the Hawkeyes. Vereen is one of the best, if not the best, tacklers on the team and he might have made some difference on some of those long Mark Weisman runs early in the game.

• Besides guard Steve Hutchinson, the Titans have two other former Vikings on their squad in return specialist Darius Reynaud, who had a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Lions on Sept. 23, and guard Chris DeGeare, who is on the practice squad. The Titans also have defensive tackle and Caledonia, Minn., native Karl Klug, who played college ball at Iowa.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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