Early returns: Rookie Smith-Marsette gives Vikings a spark

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Ihmir Smith-Marsette was feeling good enough about his return ability the other night — well, he seemingly always has — that he fielded a kickoff more than halfway into Minnesota’s end zone and did not hesitate to run it out.

The rookie’s rash decision contradicted what the Vikings have coached, reserving the automatic green light for certain situations or proven players such as Cordarrelle Patterson with his two All-Pro selections in four seasons with the team.

Given the way their special teams units have deteriorated in recent years, sinking to a new low in 2020, even coach Mike Zimmer had a hard time getting upset by the risk Smith-Marsette took on Saturday in the exhibition game against Indianapolis.

“He’s got some courage, and he catches the ball well, and he hits the seams pretty good,” said Zimmer, who has praised the fifth-round draft pick’s skills as a wide receiver in training camp, but has been just as quick to emphasize to the Iowa product the importance of first establishing himself as a trusted member of the special teams.

Smith-Marsette won the Big Ten’s Return Specialist of the Year award in 2018 and left the Hawkeyes with a career average of 28.7 yards per kickoff return, the second-best in conference history. The native of New Jersey offered the Vikings a tantalizing amount of potential when they submitted his name to the NFL with the 157th overall selection this spring.

He was as quick to answer a question from a reporter this week about the key to successful kick returning as he was to take the ball out of the end zone in the second half against the Colts.

“Got to be fearless. Got to be able to go out there and do it. Not think about it. Just be about it,” Smith-Marsette said.

Since Patterson’s 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in 2016, his final season with the team, the Vikings have not scored on either a punt or a kickoff return.

They still ranked in the top eight in the league in both categories in 2017 and 2018, but the past two years have been a pronounced decline. They were last in the NFL in 2020 with a paltry average of 4.3 yards per punt return and 17th in kickoff returns (21.9).

Smith-Marsette got an extended audition on Saturday on both fronts, contributing a 17-yard punt return and a 41-yard kickoff return. Wide receiver K.J. Osborn is another candidate for both jobs, as is running back Ameer Abdullah.

There’s a lot more to special teams than the returners, of course, and just about every facet for the Vikings has been undergoing a renovation project this summer.

They’ve changed kickers again, giving the job for now to Greg Joseph, who has 16 games of league experience on his resume. Long snapper Andrew DePaola is back after manning the role for seven games following a midseason switch in 2020.

Punter Britton Colquitt is the most proven member of the group, though even he kicked poorly enough in the first exhibition game that Zimmer criticized his performance.

Then there are the kick coverage units, under new direction with the promotion of Ryan Ficken to special teams coordinator after the firing of Marwan Maalouf. There’s an emphasis on simplicity this year, after some complaints that the previous schemes were too complex.

“I’ve got to limit the thinking on them. We pretty much say we’re not using the ‘T’ word: think,” Ficken said, adding: “That’s our job, just kind of trimming it down for them so they can go play fast.”

Adam Thielen, who cemented himself as a special teams ace earlier in his career in his rise from undrafted tryout player from an NCAA Division II program to Pro Bowl wide receiver, went so far as to address the special teams players recently to encourage them to continue to take that phase of the game seriously.

“A lot of them, honestly, before I talked to the group, didn’t even really know that I played special teams,” Thielen said, adding: “As a special teams player, you might only have 12 plays in a game. How important every single one of those plays is, just try to get them to understand that.”

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