Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer has no trouble saying it. Percy Harvin is the team’s No. 1 kick returner. That was clear Saturday morning when Harvin went through the morning walk-through on the first unit kickoff return team. And it was clear when Priefer met with reporters afterward.
“Come Week 1, if he's ready to roll, we're ready to have him back there,” Priefer said. “Absolutely."
If only it were that simple. Harvin returned 16 kickoffs last season, averaging 32.5 yards per return. He returned the season’s opening kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown and also had a 104-yard return in Atlanta in Week 12 that finished at the 3 yard line. But as the season moved on and Harvin was dealing with nagging rib and shoulder injuries, the coaching staff was much more cautious about using him extensively on kickoff returns, not wanting to endanger a playmaker they also count heavily on on offense. In the four games Adrian Peterson missed, Harvin only returned two kicks.
That’s why it will be interesting to monitor how the fourth-year speedster is used early this season as Peterson’s return to health is also watched closely.
"I think we're going to have a good plan with Percy this year," Priefer said. "He is our number one kickoff returner. When we have the opportunity to use him, we're going to use him.”
Other guys in the mix at kick returner right now include rookies Josh Robinson and Jarious Wright, Kerry Taylor and Bryan Walters. For the record, Lorenzo Booker returned 19 kickoffs last season but is now with the Bears. Cornerback Marcus Sherels returned 16 kicks but may be a longshot to make this team.
In other special teams news, both Priefer and head coach Leslie Frazier have made it clear they intend to put significant pressure on rookie kicker Blair Walsh during training camp, trying to get a feel for how he produces under duress.
Said Frazier: “We’re going to have some competitive moments where we really want to get our fans involved and put a little pressure on him.”
Priefer said the push to up the pressure on Walsh is a different tactic than what he would have used had veteran Ryan Longwell still been the team’s kicker.
“Ryan was a proven commodity,” Priefer said. “And Blair needs to prove himself. He knows that.”
Priefer also had this to say about Walsh’s deportment: “Being the only kicker here, he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself to prove himself. He’s a very conscientious young man. He’s a very hard-working kid. This is extremely important to him. And he competes with himself. That’s why I didn’t get another guy into camp. Like I said at mini-camp, I wanted him to get as many reps as he can with [long snapper] Cullen [Loeffler], with [holder] Chris [Kluwe], with our whole first field goal unit to put him in a situation where he can be successful.”