EDEN PRAIRIE -- Training camp could not have come soon enough this year for the Minnesota Vikings.
Yes, it's that time already. Players are required to report to the Minnesota State University campus in Mankato Friday by 5 p.m., and the first practice is Saturday morning. Forgive the Vikings if they drive down Hwy. 169 a little faster than normal -- three straight wins to close 2002 helped soften the blow of a 6-10 record and heightened their eagerness to begin the 2003 season.
"It's going to be exciting," coach Mike Tice said last week.
The beginning of Tice's coaching career was brutal, including the death of offensive lineman Lewis Kelly's wife, the arrest of Randy Moss for a traffic violation and starts of 0-4 and 3-10.
The "Randy Ratio" he added to the offense to try to get Moss the ball as often as possible didn't work out very well, quarterback Daunte Culpepper led the league in turnovers and his defense was again one of the NFL's worst.
But success finally came in December -- way too late to consider the year a promising one, but perfectly placed at the end of the schedule to give hope for the upcoming season.
A record number of players participated in the Vikings' offseason strength and conditioning program at Winter Park (the previous mark was set last year), and though they'll arrive with a couple pressing concerns, this might be as enthusiastic as the team has been about the start of camp in some time.
On Thursday night the Vikings were still without contracts for three draft picks -- including first-rounder Kevin Williams, who's expected to play next to rising star Chris Hovan on the interior of the defensive line.
The Vikings obviously will try hard to avoid a repeat of last year, when offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie held out until Nov. 1 after he was picked seventh overall. Tice said he was told by vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski that all the picks would be in before camp began.
"It's always important, but I don't ever count on it," owner Red McCombs said Thursday from his San Antonio office. "We hope to have all of them signed, we should have all of them signed, but if not we just keep working on it. The good news is that all of them eventually get resolved."
The other major issue at this point is running back Michael Bennett's injured foot, which underwent a surgical procedure last week and will cost him at least half the season -- if not all of it. While they wait to see if Bennett responds to the operation and can rehabilitate his foot in time to return this season, the Vikings will move ahead without him.
Doug Chapman begins the season as the No. 1 tailback, with veteran Moe Williams remaining in his third-down back role and rookie Onterrio Smith -- another of the unsigned picks -- set to challenge. The Vikings also worked out veteran Tim Biakabutuka this week and are high on inexperienced Larry Ned, the second-leading rusher in San Diego State history behind Marshall Faulk.
"Fortunately for us," Tice said, "running back is one of our deeper positions."
Vikings sign 6th-round draft choice Eddie Johnson
The Minnesota Vikings signed punter Eddie Johnson on Thursday.
The sixth-round draft choice from Idaho State averaged more than 46 yards per punt during his college career. His 100 punts included 37 that were over 50 yards. He holds the NCAA record for single-game punting, when he averaged 61.5 yards per punt on six kicks against Cal Poly as a senior.
He is the first punter drafted by the Vikings since 1978, when the team picked Mike Deutsch in the 9th round.
Johnson is the fourth Vikings' draft choice to sign, leaving them with three unsigned picks: first-rounder Kevin Williams, a defensive tackle, second-rounder E.J. Henderson, a linebacker, and fourth-rounder Onterrio Smith, a running back.
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