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Updated: November 5th, 2011 4:38pm
Zulgad's roundup: A look at three of the Vikings' most pressing issues

Zulgad's roundup: A look at three of the Vikings' most pressing issues

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Vikings will return to work Monday after getting some time away during their off week.

While Leslie Frazier's team is coming off a 24-21 victory over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, there are plenty of issues for a 2-6 team that has to know it must turn its focus toward the 2012 season.

Here are three of the most pressing ones:

• Frazier has indicated the team will announce a decision about cornerback Chris Cook on Monday. This is a big one. Cook hasn't been with the Vikings since he allegedly tried to strangle his girlfriend last month. He has been suspended by the team and charged with felony domestic assault by strangulation.

The Vikings' suspension of Cook for conduct detrimental to the team can only last for four games under terms of the agreement with the NFL Players Association, but it's possible the club is looking for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to step in and impose a longer ban.

If that happens, the Vikings could retain Cook's rights and not have to worry about him for the rest of the season. If that doesn't happen, there is a chance the Vikings could feel they have no choice but to end their relationship with Cook.

That would be a huge blow considering Cook was a second-round pick in 2010 and plays a position at which it's hard to find good talent. What happens with Cook will be very important because there is little doubt the plan before this off-the-field incident was for him to be a starting corner next season.

Take Cook off the roster and all of a sudden cornerback goes from being an area of big need to an area of huge need.

• The transition to first-round pick Christian Ponder has gone well so far and the quarterback should get some valuable playing time over the final half of his rookie season.

But when will he be joined by some other members of the 2011 draft class?

The Vikings are six-games under .500 and while beating Carolina on the road is nice, the reality is that the Panthers aren't a very good team either. In other words, no one should think the Vikings have turned it around.

What the Vikings need to do is see what they've got among the nine players, including Ponder, that were selected last April and remain on the 53-man roster.

This list includes tight end Kyle Rudolph; defensive lineman Christian Ballard; cornerback Brandon Burton; offensive linemen DeMarcus Love and Brandon Fusco; safety Mistral Raymond; defensive end D'Aundre Reed; and wide receiver Stephen Burton.

Some on the above list already are getting playing time, and it's likely not feasible to work them all in. But that doesn't mean a guy like Raymond shouldn't get a chance.

Free safety Husain Abdullah has struggled of late and the rotation between Jamarca Sanford and Tyrell Johnson at strong safety indicates the Vikings don't really trust either one.

Raymond, 6-1, 202 pounds, showed potential in training camp and if he's starting-caliber material the Vikings might as well find out now.

Changes also are going to have to be made to the offensive line at some point. Left guard Steve Hutchinson just turned 34 and right guard Anthony Herrera is battling a knee injury for the second time in as many seasons.

The Vikings are going to want to provide Ponder with the best possible protection, but that doesn't mean a guy like Fusco couldn't be a candidate for an expanded role at some point in 2011.

• Frazier said a week ago that there would be personnel changes discussed, including whether veteran Cedric Griffin would remain as the starting right cornerback.

Griffin's return from having surgery to repair torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees over the past two seasons is a remarkable story, but it's become pretty clear that he lacks the explosiveness to be effective.

Could that return with time? Did Griffin come back too early? That's all possible but right now it seems the Vikings aren't doing themselves any favors by starting Griffin on a weekly basis.

The issue becomes what do they have behind him? Antoine Winfield appears set to return from a neck injury a week from Monday at Green Bay. If Cook weren't in trouble, he likely would have moved from Winfield's spot on the left side to Griffin's on the right side.

But odds of Cook returning any time soon appear slim. That means the Vikings could look to plug Asher Allen into Griffin's role, but despite his work last Sunday against Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, an argument could be made that asking Allen to take a regular starting job on the outside is a bit much.

The fact Brandon Burton, a fifth-round pick out of Utah, remains behind Marcus Sherels on the depth chart means the coaching staff does not feel as if he's ready.

So what will the Vikings do?

The guess here is that Allen will end up getting a shot in the short term and Griffin still will see playing time but it might be in the nickel so that his snaps are scaled back a bit.

Keeping it positive

The Vikings have done their best to stay away from any type of threats when it comes to their desire for a new stadium, instead often focusing their message on what the team means to the state.

The latest example is a nearly two-minute video posted on the team's website that speaks to the tradition of the 51-year-old franchise in Minnesota.

It will be interesting to see how much longer owner Zygi Wilf stays away from threats, especially with the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission hoping to add a year to the Vikings' lease because the roof collapsed last December and the club could not play the entire season in its home stadium.

Gophers to plan schedule

Gophers men's hockey coach Don Lucia said Friday during an appearance on "Judd & Phunn" on 1500 ESPN that he will talk with athletic director Joel Maturi this coming week about what the schedule will look like when the program shifts to the Big Ten conference in 2013-14.

"It looks like right now with the Big Ten model we'll do it similar to basketball, where most of the nonconference games are all going to be in the front half of the schedule and once we get into December on that's when the Big Ten games are going to be played," Lucia said.

The Gophers' current setup in the WCHA calls for them to begin playing conference games almost immediately so this will be a change. The Big Ten hockey conference will consist of the Gophers, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.

"I think it's fine," Lucia said of not playing conference games until December. "The second half of the season, once you get into mid-January, you don't want to have nonconference games, you just don't. It's too hard to get teams out of their conference at that point and time.

"It's much easier to schedule nonconference games in October, November and then after Christmas. It's probably all in all with a 20-game league schedule the best way to do it."

Lucia said he is hopeful that since the Big Ten is going to control the schedule that conference officials will be able to work it so there aren't any home conflicts with hockey and basketball or with weekends that the football team is slated to be at home.

"We're in a situation that we can't play Saturdays when our football team is at home," Lucia said.

A Minnesota tournament

Lucia said the Gophers are going to have to decide if they want to continue having a tournament at Mariucci Arena around Christmas time each year.

One thing he does expect is a four-team tournament in late January that would be held the week before the Super Bowl at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

It would feature teams from in the state.

That would mean the Gophers would get a chance to continue playing what will then be former WCHA opponents, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, Mankato and Bemidji State.

Obviously, not all of those schools could be in the tournament every season but some type of rotation would have to be worked out.

"That will be two of our non-conference games," Lucia said. "Then what are we going to do after that? Do we want to continue to play our rivals within our state? That's going to be a priority. We will maybe want to get to the East Coast. I think we're going to have something going with Notre Dame for a few years. We have to build our schedule. We also are mindful of the fact that revenue-wise we have to play so many home games, too."

Much improved

Center Matt Cullen did not have the type of season he was hoping for in 2010-11 after signing as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild.

The Moorhead, Minn., native had 12 goals and 27 assists in 78 games and was a minus-14.

But the veteran has been much improved this season.

He had two goals and an assist with nine shots on goal Thursday in the Wild's 5-1 victory over Vancouver and entered Saturday's game against St. Louis with six goals, two assists, and a plus-3 rating in 12 games.

"I don't think it's one thing," said Wild director of player development Brad Bombardir during an appearance on "Judd & Phunn" on Friday. "I think it's a combination. He came in here this summer into training camp and was one of our fittest players. He was one of the best in shape players. He may have been the fittest player. So he came in ready. He did the work to be prepared for the season.

"I think right there, if you as a player walk into camp and you know over the last three months you've busted your butt and you've done everything you can to be in shape and to be prepared ...

Number one, you're physically ready to go. But number two, most importantly, you know you've done the work. You know when you walk in that locker room that you've done the work. You know that you deserve to have your season to start off well and to have success. Mentally you know that. And that's a big thing for players.

"You can play one day in the National Hockey League or 12 years in the National Hockey League and convincing yourself and having confidence in yourself is a huge thing. It is huge for you to have success.  I think right now Cully is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and he feels great about his game. And he should because he's playing great hockey."

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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