It's almost time for the biggest practice of Training Camp thus far--the Saturday night practice at Blakeslee Stadium on the campus of Minnesota State University-Mankato. I'll be there live to give you up to the second information on Twitter. In the meantime, read along with what Head Coach Mike Zimmer had to say about the current state of his team in his press conference after the Saturday morning practice.
First and foremost, for those of you expecting something resembling a intra-squad preseason game tonight, it's time to temper your expectations. Yes, the team will be in full pads. Yes, it'll be a lot of offense vs. defense. But Zimmer is using the practice under the lights to mostly work on situational football and tighten up some of the issues with his team. Zimmer says the team will be trying a large variety of different situations. "We have a no-huddle situation, we've got a two-minute, we've got a red zone, we've got a short yardage, I think we have a couple of move-the-ball situations, like regular game-like things, so quite a few."
The coach reiterated that there won't be any "live contact" tonight. He explained why:
No, I do not think that we are going to go live. This was my thinking going into it: when you scrimmage against yourself, you have 22 of your players out there, so the odds are twice as good that somebody has a chance of getting hurt. I think that with the preseason games, we will have enough time. Our guys are going to play some in the preseason and I am going to make sure that we are prepared for the first ball game, that we come out not only healthy but that we have enough reps in preseason to get our offensive and defensive systems where we feel comfortable with them.
Zimmer said that Josh Robinson could probably play in the practice, but they'll probably hold him out tonight and give him an extra day's rest since the team has an off day Sunday. It sounds like J-Rob will be back on the field Monday. The situation isn't as clear-cut for Robert Blanton.
Robert Blanton still has a hamstring [injury]. I don't know how long that is going to be, to be honest with you...All of the cornerbacks - I am pretty hard on the corners, so they have to make sure that they are out there and going and getting better all of the time.
The latest on what's ailing tight end A.C. Leonard isn't quite as clear either. "He is still taking some tests. He has, I think, one more test to do, so we will see where that is. But so far, he has been okay."
Zimmer is pleased with the progression of Everson Griffen as a defensive leader and thinks the veteran defensive end is really striving to get better. He is also encouraged with how first round pick Anthony Barr is coming along.
Anthony has so many good things going for him. He is extremely smart, he hardly makes the same mistake twice, he takes unbelievable notes and he is a great athlete. He has great size, great speed and great acceleration. Now, there are still a lot of things that he has to work on, but when he does things right, it could be special. We still have to develop him a little more in the pass-rush. In college, he was able to run around guys. You can't do that here in this league. He should be a very, very good player in this league...He is fairly quiet, but it is just a little bit of his personality, I think. When I ask him questions in the meeting room and ask him questions on the field, like I got after him a little bit yesterday on the field, he came over and kind of explained what he was thinking. But he does not get shaken up, and he does not go in his shell. I got after him pretty good yesterday.
Barr is just one of the group of linebackers that has been the focus of a lot of media attention in Mankato. It was a weak point of the team last year and Zimmer is working to get the right mix of guys on the field to get the most out of his defense. One of the guys that's hopeful to make an impact is Gerald Hodges, who Zimmer was asked about:
The last two days he's had much better practices the last two day. The thing I keep thinking, and I talked to our coaches about this last night, Gerald is still a young guy, a young developing player that has a lot of athletic ability. He's got good punch. He can run. Like the other guys I was talking about being misaligned a little bit, once they get more comfortable in really what we're doing in the system that allows them to free flow and play a lot faster and it's just taking him, and not just him, the other linebackers too, we're just a little bit off in our alignment so it causes us to be a little bit slow to where we're getting to. And, obviously, the coverages that we're playing I think are probably different than what they've played in the past. So there's some things they got to adjust to. That will come. My dilemma all the time is I look at the defense at Cincinnati when I left and I have to remember the defense at Cincinnati right when I first got there. But my expectations are so high all the time, I don't really want to think back, I want to think where we're at and where we got to get to, to be where I want us to be.
I asked Zimmer if there were still a lot of decisions for him to make about Hodges and the second unit of linebackers after the first line of Chad Greenway, Jasper Brinkley, and Barr:
Well, we haven't decided even with the first group yet totally. But the second group, we talked about that and next week we'll pair that down just a little bit where we feel like, "Alright, these guys are kind of who we need to really look at to keep evaluating at this point." The biggest thing we want to do is make sure we get the right 53 guys on the roster and not be so quick to evaluate a guy. Like I said with Gerald Hodges, he's a little bit not quite in the right place and so he's making mistakes. But we see the ability and his athletic ability and the potential that he has. And the question is, "Okay, how soon can we get those guys in the right place where now we can use their athletic ability and their upside."
I have said in my practice notes that David Yankey has a way to go before cracking the starting lineup on the offensive line. Zimmer confirmed that today:
Probably not for a while. He missed so much time with coming from Stanford. He missed all the OTAs so his technique has a long way to go still. But that doesn't mean he won't get there because he's a smart kid. But he's working real hard on his techniques and his sets. He's not making many mental errors as far as who to block and things like that. He's got to do a better job in the technical part of the game of what we're teaching. That may take a little time.
I asked him if continuity along the offensive line with all five 2013 starters coming back was important to him:
I think it's extremely important that those guys work together all the time. It's almost like the defensive backs, you've got to play together and know where everybody is going to be and know the calls are all being made so everybody's on the same page. And if they're not on the same page, that's when you let Adrian get hit when he doesn't need to and you let the quarterback. I think those guys being all back is helping. Again, they're learning different system, different calls. It's the same coach with the offensive line but the system is different so they're all learning the same thing too.
It's well known that Zimmer is a defense-first guy. He was asked how much influence he has as a head coach over the Vikings' day-to-day offensive operations:
Well, they'll be certain things. Honestly, I trust Norv's judgement and what it is and I'll come in and I'll talk to him about how are we going to get this guy blocked this week, what do you think the best runs are, how we'll get them in play. I talked to him about a couple things last night. The biggest input for me will be, "Alright, it's this situation Norv, we need to run the ball here, okay? We've been running it down their throats. Let's not throw it three times, let's get another run in there. Give the ball to Adrian." Whatever it is or things that I see on tape, "their having a hard time adjusting, back field formations" Things like that.
I don't know about you guys, but I really like what I'm hearing from our new head coach. He definitely has a positive attitude but he doesn't mince words by acknowledging his team still has a long way to go. Hopefully we'll see some improvements on display tonight.