MINNEAPOLIS -- Enough with the jokes about Chris Weinke's age. The Minnesota Vikings don't really think it's all that funny.
They're more concerned that their defense doesn't get beaten Sunday by the Carolina Panthers' rookie quarterback -- no matter how old he might be.
"He throws an excellent deep ball," said Vikings coach Dennis Green. "A very good touch passer, and the kind of guy that they can form a pocket around. He's a big, strong guy."
Notice how age didn't come up in that discussion. That's the advantage, apparently, of being a 29-year-old with six years experience in pro sports, plus three seasons starting for one of the nation's best college programs and a Heisman Trophy.
The fact he's a rookie almost becomes irrelevant.
"He's a mature man," said Minnesota defensive backs coach Willie Shaw, brought in this season to implement a more aggressive, speed-based approach for a defense that was 28th in the league. "He understands this kind of pressure."
For someone of his accomplishment, Weinke still speaks like a first-year guy. As he probably should.
"This is all brand new to me," said Weinke, who starred at Florida State after six seasons of minor league baseball. "I still have a lot to learn."
Those who saw Weinke lead his football team to the state title game as a prep star in Minnesota probably aren't surprised he became a starting quarterback in his first season in the NFL. But with more than a decade in between?
The Panthers weren't even around yet when he played for St. Paul's Cretin-Derham Hall High. Neither were the 1990s.
"It's been a long time since I've done anything in the Twin Cities," Weinke said. "Obviously, I'm excited. It'll be a nice homecoming."
It's almost a Cretin-Derham Hall reunion, with Minnesota offensive linemen Matt Birk and Corbin Lacina also counting as alumni. And about 60 of Weinke's friends and family will be watching him play against the team he grew up rooting for.
"It's been kind of weird watching them on film," Weinke said. "My whole life I've been a fan."
Weinke won't be the only one in the spotlight. Rookie running back Michael Bennett is expected to start in the Vikings' first real game without their career rushing leader, Robert Smith, who retired.
Bennett, Minnesota's first-round pick from Wisconsin, grew up in Milwaukee and will also have plenty of people at the game, too. He expects to be nervous but not worried about his first pro start -- for one obvious reason.
"I'm fast," he grinned. "I don't want to brag about it, but I can run."
The Vikings' trio of quarterback Daunte Culpepper and receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter leads one of history's best passing attacks, and an inexperienced Carolina defense doesn't look like much of a challenge.
Safety Mike Minter is out with a knee injury, and the Panthers will start three second-year players and two rookies, linebacker Dan Morgan and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins.
But Bennett will be running behind two new tackles. Korey Stringer died during training camp of heatstroke -- a tragedy that clearly will weigh heavily on the team this year -- and Todd Steussie signed with Carolina in the offseason.
For both of those reasons, Steussie will also experience a range of emotions Sunday.
"I think in some ways it's going to be fun, and in some ways it may not be," said Steussie, one of three new starters on a Panthers line that allowed the league's most sacks last year. "I don't have any long-lasting enemies up there, but I might create some after this game."
Across from him will be a defense eager to put last season behind it. Already, the Vikings intercepted as many passes -- eight -- in the preseason as they did all last year.
And there won't be any age discrimination when it comes to picking off one of Weinke's passes.
"We're not planning on him getting flustered like a rookie," Shaw said. "We're playing him like a vet."
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