One thing I learned hanging around Vikings coaches is that a big question they wanted to answer this offseason was how they were going to replace the retiring Jim Kleinsasser after 13 years of performing as one of the best, if not the best, blocking tight end in the NFL.
Sure you have a number of superstars on the roster in Jared Allen, Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin, to name three.
But talk to Vikings tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson, and he says that Kleinsasser will be almost impossible to replace.
The running game is going to miss Kleinsasser without a doubt, so it will be up to newcomer John Carlson and second-year player Kyle Rudolph to come close to doing all the little things Kleinsasser did.
In a conversation with General Manager Rick Spielman, I predicted that Kleinsasser will be missed so much that once the season is a few games old, there will be a phone call to Kleinsasser asking him if he would be interested in coming back.
But Spielman said that this won't happen because the Vikings believe they will get great tight end play out of Carlson, Rudolph and others.
Still there has to be some concern. Carlson missed the entire 2011 season with the Seahawks after having shoulder surgery in the preseason.
But Carlson, who along with Rudolph make up two of the five former Notre Dame players on the Vikings roster, said the fact that there was a full schedule for offseason workouts and that there will be a complete training camp and preseason, compared to the lockout-shortened offseason last year, has given him the opportunity to prove that he is healthy and in very good shape.
"Missing last year and being on the IR, I needed this practice and I needed this time to sharpen my skills," Carlson said. "That's why I'm so thankful that we have this time, because I needed the work. Very healthy, I feel great, excited to be here."
Carlson also suffered a major concussion in the 2010 playoffs against the Bears, an injury he said is behind him but something he stays aware of.
"I do whatever I can to protect myself. I have had a concussion in the past, but it's something that's a risk that we take playing the game," he said. "It's a serious thing when it happens and it has to be taken care of, but you can't be worried about that when you're playing the game.
"I was concerned at the time [about his career being in jeopardy]. It's one of those things that you just have to deal with when it happens. I was fortunate that I recovered very quickly when it happened, so at this point in time, it's not a concern for me."
Back in Minnesota
Carlson is also happy that during the Organized Team Activities, Vikings tight ends were used a great deal in the passing game. "We have some talented guys at the tight end position and we can all run and catch and block and do all those things. It's a good problem to have," he said.
If there's one thing Carlson has shown early in his career, it's that he can catch the ball. He averaged 45.7 receptions and 506.3 yards per season with 13 touchdowns in his first three years with Seattle.
Carlson's family is littered with athletes. His mother, Bette Jo, and father, John Sr., were athletes at St. Cloud State, and his father coached John and his brother, Alex, in basketball at Litchfield, where they won two state championships. Alex Carlson went on to be an all-region guard for St. Cloud State basketball.
John said he was happy to be near his family. "It feels great to be back in Minnesota, in my home state," he said. "I'm excited for what we're building here as a team and I have high hopes for the season."
And what about that Irish connection? Carlson was roomates with center John Sullivan in college and he added that Rudolph is a great player at tight end. "To be able to work with these Notre Dame guys again is fun," Carlson said.
Gophers defense to be better
Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is convinced he will be coaching a much improved defense. He has a lot of good things to say about Thieren Cockran, a redshirt freshman from Homestead, Fla., believing that paired at defensive end with former Minneapolis Washburn standout Ra'Shede Hageman, they will give the Gophers the strong pass rush they didn't have last year.
"He's extremely athletic," Claeys said of Cockran. "He has the length to be an All-American-type player. He has to gain a little bit more weight, but at least we've got him into the mid-30s [up from 205 pounds] and he's kept his athletic ability. He will provide some more pass rush for us so we don't have to put those secondary people on an island so much."
• U.S. men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski won’t have Timberwolves, Vikings and Wild physician Dr. Sheldon Burns to praise this year like he did when Burns was the team doctor in the 2010 FIBA World Championships. Burns has served at eight Olympics, including for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Games, but family reasons are keeping Burns home from the 2012 Games in London.
• Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones, the point guard who is ranked No. 5 in the 2014 class by Rivals.com, went up against Julius Randle, the No. 2-ranked player in the 2013 class out of Dallas, at the Elite Youth Basketball League Finals on Friday in North Augusta, Ga. Jones and the Howard Pulley Panthers defeated Randle’s Texas Titans 74-65. Jones finished with 27 points, eight assists, four rebounds and two turnovers while the 6-9 Randle had 31 points, 17 rebounds and six turnovers.
• Entering Saturday, in 13 games in July with the Diamondbacks, former Twins outfielder Jason Kubel was hitting .262 with six home runs, 14 RBI and eight nine scored. On the season Kubel has 17 home runs and 64 RBI, putting him on pace for nearly 30 homers and 112 RBI for the season. His RBI total began Saturday sixth in the NL, three off the league lead held by the Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran.
• As usual, it looks as if Eden Prairie and Wayzata will battle for the Lake Conference football title in the final game of the regular season when they meet.
• Agent Ben Hankinson, the former Gophers hockey player who represents the Maple Leafs’ Jake Gardiner, noted that Gardiner was a standout forward for Minnetonka as a high school junior before switching to defense as a senior. He then played three years at Wisconsin, and now, four years after the switch, he made the NHL All-Rookie Team with Toronto.