A special calling for Vikings' special teamers

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2012 - 8:04 AM

The Vikings are fielding "high-character kids" who accept and embrace their roles on punts and kickoffs.

Matt Asiata's motivation is simple. There is a reason Asiata, the Vikings' third running back -- a fellow on the back end of the team's roster -- has no problem going braids to the wall every time he takes part in that weekly mayhem known as NFL special teams. ¶ He's wearing purple now. But a year ago he was in blue, as in blue collar. Asiata has a wife and two kids back home in Salt Lake City, and after the undrafted free agent was cut by the Vikings on the final roster move last year, he put food on his table by working in a warehouse -- picking items up, dropping items off, training on the side. You don't forget that. ¶ "I have a wife and kids to support," Asiata said. "They stick in my head every day. Every Sunday I am playing for them and for the team."

This is the kind of guy Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer wants. Guys who look at special teams as an NFL meal ticket rather than the scraps that go to those who aren't atop the offensive or defensive depth chart.

Guys like Asiata, determined to make the most of a second chance. Or Rhett Ellison, a backup tight end who was so surprised to be taken in April's draft that he cried. Or linebacker Larry Dean, the only undrafted free agent to make the Vikings roster last year, going from NCAA Division II Valdosta State to the NFL on the strength of special teams play.

"You have to accept your role, know your role and embrace that role," Dean said.

If enough people do that, good things can happen.

"It starts with high-character kids," Priefer said. "We're bringing in the right people, in my opinion. Last year when we brought in some guys late, because of injuries, they didn't buy in. But the guys we drafted who are here this year? They know it keeps them on an NFL roster."

Early returns

Think back to Sunday's victory in Detroit, the Vikings' first NFC North victory in 12 tries. The offense didn't make any big mistakes, but it didn't score a touchdown. The touchdowns came via Percy Harvin's 105-yard kickoff return to start the game and Marcus Sherels' 77-yard punt return early in the second half. The victory was sealed when rookie safety Robert Blanton downed Chris Kluwe's 47-yard punt at the Detroit 2-yard line.

The game showed how important special teams can be. "This is guys fighting for their lives to stay on the team," Blanton said. "Maybe some guys on the offense or defense have a little security. On special teams, it is a week-to-week, play-to-play thing. But you can do great things there."

The Vikings are fourth in the league in kick returns, and Harvin is the top returner, averaging 38.3 yards. Punting? The Vikings are second in the league, and Sherels, individually, is third (18.8 per return).

Talk to Harvin about his big return Sunday and he will not talk about himself. "If you watched it, you saw," he said. "The hole was huge. Anybody could have hit that."

Perfect blocking

Priefer called for a bounce return, anticipating that the Lions' Jason Hanson would kick the ball to the ball to the left side of the end zone.

The ball didn't go as far left as expected, which brought John Wendling, one of the Lions' best special teamers, into play. Wendling lines up second from the outside to Hanson's right. It was Harvin's job to take Wendling out of the play, which he did by faking a center return before bouncing outside. His fake -- Priefer calls it a set -- got Wendling to bite, essentially taking him out of the play.

Then it was all blocking. Tyrone McKenzie and Blanton took out Doug Hogue, who lined up third from the outside to the Vikings' right, so completely that they blocked him into another defender, taking them both out of the play. Joe Berger and Christian Ballard kept Ronnell Lewis from reaching the play.

Ellison took out Stefan Logan, who lines up next to Hogue, while Asiata pushed Jonte Green, the outside guy, out of the play.

The resulting hole was enormous. Harvin hit the seam and was gone. Afterward, he said, he went up and down the sideline giving his blockers hugs.

Buying in

The punt return was just as well executed. Nick Harris' 41-yard punt had a hang time of 4.4 seconds, nearly giving Kassim Osgood -- who lined up outside to the Vikings' right -- time to stop the return before it started. Sherels made two guys miss on his own on the return, and sidestepping Osgood was the first.

Then, again, the blocking: Rookie Josh Robinson and Brandon Burton took out Wendling. Blanton blocked Keiland Williams, Ellison took on Hogue and rookie Audie Cole blocked DeAndre Levy.

Finally, Sherels cut left, making Ashlee Palmer miss, and was gone, a caravan in tow.

"I turned the corner and looked around and there were, like, eight guys with me," Sherels said. "It was awesome."

And satisfying.

"To work so hard during the week, then to have it all come together like that?" Ellison said. "For guys who plays special teams, it's the ultimate."

And it shows what players can do with a relatively small role if they buy into it in a big way. Just ask Asiata.

"When you get released, it makes you look at the big picture," he said.

"It made me a humbler, better person, I guess. I take every snap I get to the heart. I'm blessed to be here, be a part of a team. That's what I love."

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