Blair Walsh, impressive on field goals and kickoffs in two preseason games, made himself right at home during his first experience in the Metrodome.
Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh (3) kicks a field goal as Vikings punter Chris Kluwe (5) holds the ball against the Buffalo Bills in the second half of an NFL preseason football game, Friday, Aug. 17, 2012, in Minneapolis.
Blair Walsh never had been inside the Metrodome before Friday. His first impressions?
"Loved that place," Walsh said. "The atmosphere was cool. The fans were crazy. I can't wait to get back."
Walsh's admiration of the antiquated Dome only grew throughout his first night there. In the Vikings' 36-14 preseason victory over Buffalo, the rookie from Georgia kicked five field goals in six attempts, providing early evidence that he has the potential to be a long-term special teams answer.
To put it another way, if Walsh can stay consistent with what he has shown to date, he still could be the Vikings kicker when their new downtown stadium opens in 2016.
No wonder Walsh made sure to immediately make himself at home.
And if he didn't already appreciate the comforts of the indoors, he had seen firsthand the perils of kicking outdoors a week earlier, when in his first NFL action he had to battle the swirling winds inside Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Yes, the vicious breeze settled some when Walsh made both his field goals -- from 39 and 26 yards against the 49ers. But kicking during warmups? At times it was like throwing cotton balls at a box fan.
"Crazy," Walsh said. "You'd hit a ball solid and think, 'Oh, that's in.' And then you'd look up and it had blown completely off the map."
Those pregame Candlestick gusts were so relentless that special teams coach Mike Priefer worried about his young kicker's nerves. But Priefer didn't say anything, opting instead to monitor Walsh's demeanor.
"I was very proud of the way he reacted," Priefer said. "Because I've been around young kickers before, and their eyes get real big. They want to make a good impression like any young player. He did not [get wide eyes]."
With less than three weeks before the regular season begins, the experiment with Walsh -- go ahead and call it "The Blair Walsh Project" if you must -- has produced encouraging results.
Walsh's leg strength hasn't been seen only on field goals, where he is 7-for-8 in two preseason games. He also has kicked off 12 times, creating an averaging starting field position for the opponents at their 19-yard line.
Return to success
That's another little thing the Vikings believe can make a big difference. Also a big deal: Walsh's escalating confidence.
The 22-year-old kicker arrived in the Twin Cities following a college career that ended with him missing 14 of 35 field-goal attempts as a senior. So despite leaving Georgia as the SEC's all-time leading scorer, Walsh had to climb out of a noticeable mental funk.
"There wasn't a specific point or a game last year where I felt my confidence dip," he said. "It just wasn't right all year. And I just couldn't get my form back."
Throughout the pre-draft process, Walsh regained his swagger. And since being drafted, he has invested endless time with Priefer cleaning up his mechanics.
Priefer asked Walsh to slow down his approach, feeling as if the rookie rushed too many kicks in 2011, often not allowing his holder to get the ball down in the right spot with an ideal tilt.
"You need that rhythm with the snap, the hold and the kick," said Chris Kluwe, the Vikings' punter and holder on kicks. "And I think slowing Blair down just that tenth- or two-tenths of a second has made a difference. He doesn't feel like he's hurrying coming through the ball."
Priefer has vocalized benchmarks to measure Walsh's success, calling for the young kicker to make nearly all of his field-goal attempts from 40 yards and in; 80 to 85 percent between 41 and 49 yards; and about half from 50 yards or more.
The only other worry will be maintaining Walsh's strength through an NFL season.
That's something of which Walsh is conscious. Four years ago, as a newcomer at Georgia, he remembers his eagerness leading to fatigue.
"As a freshman in college, you're trying to impress too much and you overkick," Walsh said. "I learned from that. I got dead leg and wasn't as fresh as I wanted to be most of the time. ... I think everybody needs reminders to pull back at times. You can't be out there trying to boom 58-yarders and 60-yarders regularly just to try to do it. You have to get quality reps and be smart about it."
The message has been clear. The Vikings don't want Walsh to overkick.
Except on game days of course. On Friday night, those 15 times Walsh put his leg to use paid dividends.
|Boston - WP: M. Ott||4||FINAL|
|Minnesota - LP: M. Hoffman||3|
|UC Santa Barbara||38|
|San Diego St||73|
|Utah Valley U||83|
|Cal State Fullerton||56||FINAL|
|Long Beach State||66|
|Sam Houston St||70|
|New Mexico St||70|
|Miss Valley St||68||FINAL|
|(22) Middle Tennessee||69|
|William & Mary||65|
|Aug 9 - vs. Houston||7 pm||X||27-13|
|Aug 16 - at Buffalo||6 pm||X||20-16|
|Aug 25 - at San Francisco||7 pm||X||34-14|
|Aug 29 - vs. Tennessee||7 pm||X||24-23|
|2013 regular season|
|Sep 8 - at Detroit||Noon||X||34-24|
|Sep 15 - at Chicago||Noon||X||31-30|
|Sep 22 - vs. Cleveland||Noon||X||31-27|
|Sep 29 - vs. Pittsburgh (in London)||Noon||X||34-27|
|Oct 6 - Bye|
|Oct 13 - vs. Carolina||Noon||X||35-10|
|Oct 21 - at. NY Giants||7:40 pm||X||23-7|
|Oct 27 - vs. Green Bay||7:30 pm||X||44-31|
|Nov 3 - at Dallas||Noon||X||27-23|
|Nov 7 - vs. Washington||7:25 pm||X||34-27|
|Nov 17 - at Seattle||3:25 pm||X||41-20|
|Nov. 24 - at Green Bay||Noon||26-26|
|Dec 1 - vs. Chicago||Noon||X||23-20|
|Dec 8 - at Baltimore||Noon||X||29-26|
|Dec 15 - vs. Philadelphia||Noon||X||48-30|
|Dec 22 - at Cincinnati||Noon||X||42-14|
|Dec 29 - vs. Detroit||Noon||X||14-13|