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Updated: August 6th, 2012 6:08pm
Zulgad's Roundup: Rookie kicker making positive early impression

Zulgad's Roundup: Rookie kicker making positive early impression

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Rookie kicker Blair Walsh made seven of eight field-goal attempts from between 36 and 50 yards during the Minnesota Vikings' annual night practice last Saturday and the 50-yarder would have been good from 60 yards.

This is exactly what the Vikings were hoping to see when they selected Walsh in the sixth round of the NFL draft in April and then jettisoned veteran Ryan Longwell.

"Blair Walsh, as everybody has seen in training camp so far, has a tremendous leg," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said Monday during an appearance on "Reusse & Mackey" on 1500 ESPN. "If you saw him kick off the other day, he had six touchbacks and I think three of them went through the uprights.

"That's something that we definitely wanted to improve with from last year. Ryan Longwell is a great kicker, has been a great kicker for us, has had a great career and I'm sure his career may continue on here as he gets into the season. But we felt we needed to go in a different direction."

The touchbacks are going to be a point of emphasis for the Vikings, who play in an NFC North division that features top-flight return men such as Devin Hester of Chicago and Randall Cobb of Green Bay.

With kickoffs moved up to the 35-yard line last season, Longwell finished with 19 touchbacks on 77 kickoffs. Thomas Morstead of New Orleans led the NFL with 68 touchbacks on 105 kickoffs.

"We have a kicker now that we feel can boot the ball out of the back of the end zone (for) a touchback," Spielman said. "The one stat that you want to look at is when their offense gets the ball what's the average where they start their drives? By being able to set them back, keeping them at the 20-yard (line) or below, really is going to help our defense and take a lot of stress off them."

The Vikings' potential issue is how Walsh does on field-goal attempts. Longwell didn't have a big leg but made 14 of 15 attempts from between 20 and 39 yards in 2011. He made only six of 10 attempts from 40 to 49 yards.

After making 40 of 45 attempts for Georgia during his sophomore and junior seasons, Walsh missed 14 of his 35 attempts last season. The Vikings sent special teams coordinator Mike Priefer to work out Walsh and the kicker has been working on his mechanics since being taken in the draft.

Walsh missed only two of 26 kicks in team drills in the first nine days of practice.

Priefer said Walsh's success so far in camp - Walsh is the only kicker on the roster - does not surprise him.

"I think that if you asked me that in the spring I would say I would be pleasantly surprised," Priefer said. "He was so good in the spring, I'm not surprised by it. I kind of expected it and so did he, not in an arrogant way, but in a very confident manner.

"He is striking the ball well, like I have said several times in the spring and here at training camp that his chemistry with Cullen (Loeffler) and Chris (Kluwe) is very good, it's been excellent. I'm excited again about his continued development.

"The one that kept me up Saturday was the one that he missed. You go back and watch the tape and figure out why he missed it and you move on, because he wants to be great in that scenario, But like anything else it's a process and he's going to continue to learn and get better."

Walsh's lone miss was a kick that went right wide from 45 yards on the left hash.

Making progress

Entering his second season, Christian Ponder has impressed Spielman with the development he has made from a year ago.

Of course, the fact the quarterback had an entire offseason in the Vikings program and was able to add about 20 pounds of bulk to his 6-foot-2 frame doesn't hurt.

"He really worked hard this offseason," Spielman said. "Spent a lot of time in the weight room, really was focused on coming back and having a great second year. I think he learned a lot last year. You saw in the scrimmage (on Saturday that) he has a lot more command of the offense.

"When you're watching that tape, you can see his eyes, and see him moving safeties and coming back to the opposite side. Being able to go through all of his reads and progressions. So, those are all the signs that you're looking for as he heads into his second year. Just the confidence of going out there and being able to run the offense."

There was a time when the Vikings and their fans might have expected Ponder to take a few seasons to develop behind a veteran quarterback, but those days are long gone. The early success of guys like Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton has changed the expectations for young quarterbacks.

"They are looked at just in general as they are going to come in and be your leader, they are going to take you to the promise land. That's what the quarterback does," Spielman said. "It's a quarterback driven league, but you also have to know you have to be patient and let the process take its course.

"Some guys hit in year four, some guys hit it in year three. ... It's a process, it's a learning curve they have to go through. The speed of the game is so much faster. But we're very excited about where Christian is right now and his progress."

Asked why the game has evolved like this, Spielman said: "I think it's a little bit of a product of what you're seeing in the colleges. You're seeing all these spread out offenses in college and so that's translating a little bit to the NFL.

"You see New England and how they're trying to use two tight ends and trying to use that as like a four receiver set because they are so gifted at the tight end position. A lot of it I think has to do with the type of athletes that are coming out of the college ranks."

On the job training

Spielman said that first-round pick Matt Kalil has "been everything as advertised" so far in training camp, but the fact the left tackle has been going against Pro Bowl right end Jared Allen means life isn't easy for the fourth-overall pick in the draft.

"He's getting a little bit of an education by Jared Allen, which is a great learning process for him because he's getting all this done during training camp instead of when we get into the season," Spielman said. "But he's big, he's athletic, he has the length that you look for to stabilize that left tackle position hopefully for a long time."

Spielman admitted that Allen will "kind of toy" with Kalil at times before making life extremely difficult.

"He'll go easy a couple of snaps and then all of a sudden Jared will turn on Jared," Spielman said. "What he does during the game. The next thing you know, Matt will go, 'Where did that come from?' That's been a great battle and Jared's doing a great job and he's going to help Matt be a heck of a left tackle for us."

Positions in focus

The middle of the Vikings defense is one of this team's primary question marks as the 2012 season approaches.

Letroy Guion, a fifth-round pick in 2008, is slated to go from a backup at both defensive tackle positions to the starting nose tackle. Jasper Brinkley, a fifth-round pick in 2009, is expected to take over at middle linebacker for E.J. Henderson after missing all of last season following hip surgery.

The safety position also is undergoing a makeover. Harrison Smith, the 29th-overall pick in the first round last April, is expected to win one starting position and 2011 sixth-round pick Mistral Raymond could earn the other job.

"The one thing you want, especially in the middle of your defense, is to really solidify (it)," Spielman said. "Especially the back end at the safety position. I think by moving Letroy Guion to pure nose tackle, he's 315 pounds, put on some strength, but has excellent foot quickness.

"If he can focus just on playing that position, where in the past we played him both at the 3-technique, where Kevin Williams plays, and also at the nose tackle. Fred Evans will give us some good reps in there with Guion.

"Jasper Brinkley has had a great camp and the biggest thing about him is he's just got to stay healthy. That's what we'll see because he showed great signs as a rookie. When we lost E.J., he came in and stepped in and played very well. We really focused on the back end of our defense, adding some new players, especially in the draft. We think Harrison Smith's going to be that long-time stable back there."

Speed on display

Third-round pick Josh Robinson made an impression at the night practice on Saturday by breaking up three passes. This came after Robinson missed time with what Spielman called "a minor hamstring" injury.

Robinson has big-time speed - he posted the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.33) at the Scouting Combine last February -- and with the Vikings having so many question marks at cornerback he has an excellent opportunity to make an eventual impact.

"You could really see the quickness and the speed that we saw off the college tape (on Saturday)," Spielman said.

Spielman admitted he was surprised Robinson did not go earlier in the draft.

"We were holding our breath when we were there in the third round, but right before we took him there was a run on corners in that area," Spielman said. "Sometimes positions, there are going to be runs in the draft. You saw the Vanderbilt kid go (Casey Hayward), the Montana kid go (Trumaine Johnson) and him go all right in that four picks."

Moving on

There has been talk the Twins were giving third baseman Danny Valencia a chance by dealing him to the Boston Red Sox on Sunday for 21-year-old outfield prospect Jeremias Pineda.

But the reality of the situation is that Valencia was dealt to a team that already has young hotshot Will Middlebrooks playing third. In fact, Boston traded popular veteran Kevin Youkilis for that reason. Valencia, who will turn 28 next month, will start his stint in the Red Sox organization with Triple-A Pawtucket and getting out might not be easy.

"It seems there was more to (the trade) then just giving him an opportunity or whatever," Twins reliever Glen Perkins said Monday during his weekly appearance on "Reusse & Mackey." "Trevor (Plouffe) obviously has played really well (at third).

"... (Danny's) probably better off on another team and we all wish him the best. He had his quirks and that but he was a good teammate and he was a good guy. Hopefully, he'll be able to turn it around there."

What was clear is Twins management no longer had the patience to have Valencia around. A 19th-round pick in 2006, Valencia had a good season in 2010 and finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting. But he could not sustain that success. 

Valencia was hitting .190 with one home run when he was demoted to Triple-A Rochester on May 9.

Valencia returned to the Twins in late July when Plouffe went on the disabled list because of a bruised right thumb. Valencia hit .231 with one home run in seven games back with the Twins.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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