The Vikings hold their first training camp practice a week from Friday, and for the first time in six years, Ryan Longwell won't be on hand as the No. 1 kicker on the roster.
Instead, the Vikings are gambling on Blair Walsh, a sixth-round draft pick from Georgia who had a great junior year, when he went 20-for-23 and 11-for-14 from at least 30 yards out and was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. He had some problems as a senior, however, going 21-for-35 and only 17-for-31 from past 30 yards.
Longwell, 37, has yet to sign with another team after being cut by the Vikings in May. He is currently the fifth-most accurate kicker in NFL history, converting 82.2 percent of his attempts. There has been some talk in Pittsburgh that the Steelers and former Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin might look at Longwell to team with Shaun Suisham.
There is no doubt the Vikings planned to release Longwell, who had a contract calling for $1.75 million this season, when they drafted Walsh, who will make $390,000 his rookie year. They were impressed with Walsh's potential.
Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer, who no doubt had a lot to do with the move to release Longwell and sign Walsh, has coached a number of NFL kickers, including Matt Prater, an outstanding one with the Broncos. "[Walsh] is smart, he understands his craft. He's a hardworking young man," Priefer said. "He's got a very, very strong leg. He's going to be hopefully outstanding in kickoffs and we really believe he's going to be better in field goals than he was the past year.
"In his sophomore and junior year he was one of the best kickers in the nation in college football. He struggled a little bit his senior year, but we think we can work with him and he's going to work real hard to get stuff fixed and be ready to roll."
Among the various places the Vikings scouted Walsh was in the East-West game, where he put on a great performance. As a senior, his kickoffs averaged 65.5 yards, with 19 touchbacks.
"He was widely known as the best kickoff man at the combine, but we also had him as the best field-goal kicker," Priefer said. "... He was the biggest kicker out of all the kids at the combine.
"I went and worked out the top five or six kickers, and of the guys that I worked out, three of them were drafted. Considering all of them, I thought Blair had the strongest leg. We're excited to see him kick field goals."
Apparently, the fact that Walsh had a bad senior year doesn't worry Priefer.
"You never know with a young player, but I've been around a lot of kickers in the NFL, older and younger, and he displays so much in the qualities in a kicker that you want," Priefer said. "He's mentally tough. He went through a lot last year and I think he's a better kicker because of it. He never quit. He kept working. He kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and I think he's ready to go."
Yes, the Vikings might have had the best placekicker in the game and a guy who was great in the locker room. They took a big gamble. Let's hope it turns out right.
Ellis joins U
Mike Ellis, who spent 19 years as a coach and administrator at Virginia Commonwealth, will join new Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague as senior associate athletic director. After spending 13 years on the VCU men's basketball coaching staff, Ellis worked with Teague as deputy athletic director.
He joins David Benedict, another former Teague assistant, who was named executive associate athletic director last month.
No decision on Williams
The University of Minnesota appealed a State Court of Appeals decision in 2011 that upheld a Hennepin County jury's $1 million award to Jimmy Williams, a former and would-be Gophers assistant men's basketball coach. The case was heard May 3 by the state Supreme Court and, according to Williams, a decision hasn't been announced. "They don't have a limit," said Williams, now an assistant at Memphis State. "Other courts do have a limit. I don't have any idea when they will rule."
In Gophers football news, punting was a big problem for the squad last year, and coach Jerry Kill has added two walk-ons who will compete for that spot this season. Christian Eldred is a kicker from Australia who will arrive on Wednesday and is expected to be eligible this year. Kyle Fodness was an outstanding kicker and multisport athlete for Bemidji High School.
Other walk-ons who will definitely be members of the squad when school starts include defensive backs Cedric Dicke of Cannon Falls, Cavonte Johnson of Edina and Ben Holcomb of Germantown, Wis.; defensive lineman Tyler Hartmann of Andover; athletes John McKelvey of Hunting Valley, Ohio, and Jackson Miller of Okemos, Mich.; and offensive lineman Augustine Pupungatoa of River Falls, Wis. Also expected to walk on is Hunter Friesen, the favorite receiver of Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson while both attended Mankato West High School.
As predicted in this space Wednesday, Bill Lester, who was head of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission for 25 years, will not be a member of the newly formed Minnesota Sports Facility Authority that will oversee the building of the new Vikings stadium. Lester, who will be paid a $77,500 severance, will consult with Ted Mondale, executive director of the new agency.
• The Yankees have had a scout, Bill Mele, watching Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano for the past two weeks. But look for the Twins to try to work out a one-year contract with the lefthander. The holdup is that Liriano wants a multiyear contract and the Twins might not want to commit to that.
• It's amazing that three starters for the Vikings last season -- linebacker E.J. Henderson, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and guard Anthony Herrera -- are still looking for jobs. Shiancoe reportedly visited with the Patriots on Thursday. Former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, who was with the Rams last season, has retired and will be a member of the KFAN Vikings radio broadcasting team this year.
• Twins batting coach Joe Vavra's two sons are putting up strikingly similar numbers in the Northwoods League so far this season. Through Wednesday night, both Tanner (who is blind in his right eye) and Treysen Vavra had played in 40 games. Tanner is playing for the Alexandria Beetles and hitting .367 (58-for-158), good for sixth in the league. Meanwhile, Treysen is playing for the Duluth Huskies and hitting .366 (56-for-153), ranking seventh.
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. • firstname.lastname@example.org