Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak is optimistic tight end Irv Smith Jr. will return Sunday against the Buccaneers, a needed development for the offense with tight end Kyle Rudolph's 98-game start streak in jeopardy because of a foot injury suffered against the Jaguars.

Smith, who hasn't played in a game since Nov. 22, returned to practice Thursday and was limited as one of just two available tight ends, joining Tyler Conklin. Rudolph was not seen during the open portion of practice. Smith and Conklin are in line to handle the work Sunday, according to Kubiak.

"We're heading in the right direction toward Sunday," Kubiak said of Smith after Thursday's practice. "With Rudy's situation, we're going to call on him and Conk a great deal. But a good positive day [Thursday] and hopefully another one [Friday]."

Smith has missed three of the past four games because of groin and back injuries; the latter continues to be an issue. The second-year tight end was finding his stride until he exited after a second touchdown catch and dance against the Lions on Nov. 8 to be evaluated for a groin injury.

"Irv was really coming along, and we were playing in a lot of two-tights and starting to make some plays. He was doing really good," Kubiak said. "It's a quick setback, but all indications from what I'm seeing [Thursday are] we're heading in the right direction here. So it'll be a big month for Irv and for our team. Obviously, we need him to come in and contribute as much as possible."

The Vikings signed tight end Hale Hentges off the Colts practice squad, but he's not expected to help Sunday because of the six-day entry protocol for COVID testing. Brandon Dillon, the No. 4 tight end, was placed on IR this week because of an ankle injury.

Kendricks still out

Linebacker Eric Kendricks also was not seen Thursday during the open portion of Vikings practice, held out because of a calf injury.

Kendricks tried to play through the injury last week before aggravating it in pregame warmups. Backup running back Alexander Mattison (appendectomy) also remains sidelined.

Todd Davis is expected to get another start if Kendricks remains out. Eric Wilson would take over Kendricks' middle linebacker role in the often-played nickel defense.

"It's a real tribute to the kid, how [Wilson] steps in and doesn't miss a beat," co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said, "playing a completely different position."

The new guy

Defensive end Jordan Brailford hadn't played in a football game in 706 days — the length between his final start for Oklahoma State in 2018 and last week's win against the Jaguars.

The Vikings plucked Brailford off Washington's practice squad in October, and he debuted in a big way with a forced fumble and assist on Ifeadi Odenigbo's safety — all in 11 snaps.

Brailford, a 2019 seventh-round pick, missed his rookie year because of an injury and no preseason games were played this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's been crazy," he said. "Just coming from another team in the middle of the pandemic and everything going on and all these new regulations. A lot of waiting around, a lot of sitting in hotel rooms."

Work in progress

Odenigbo leads the Vikings' young defensive line in playing time, and the experience has led to lessons for the first-year starter. He managed frustration and learned how to formulate a plan of attack during a five-game run without a sack or tackle for a loss, which ended last week against the Jaguars.

"I'm learning things about myself," Odenigbo said. "Maybe this pass rush move is too predictable, I've got to find ways to turn it up. I meet with [co-defensive coordinator Andre] Patterson and he just tells me, 'Hey, don't be frustrated, this is a new role for you.' "