EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings have experienced a significant talent decline in two seasons since reaching the NFC championship game, and with that turnover has also come a loss of leadership.
So the Vikings are not only seeking players good enough to immediately upgrade their lineup in the early rounds of this year’s draft but looking for assertive, confident, polished and experienced prospects who can help strengthen team chemistry and begin to build a young core of future captains.
Their first two picks fit the mold. USC left tackle Matt Kalil and Notre Dame free safety Harrison Smith both become instant starters. They’re also the type of guys familiar with the scrutiny and pressure of big-stage games with reputations as no-nonsense, hard-working players.
“That’s an area that we missed a season ago because of some of the changes that we’ve made on our roster going into the 2011 season,” coach Leslie Frazier said Friday. “As we were going through this evaluation process that has been and is a part of what we’re looking and the guys that we’re trying to sign. We’re trying to find not only a talented guy, but a combination of talent and leadership.”
Smith was Notre Dame’s only captain last year, the first time since 1999 that the Fighting Irish picked just one.
“I have dealt with being a leader of a team that’s gone through things. Knowing how to deal with guys and helping younger guys, interact with the coaches. Being the guy in between the players and the coaches. I think it’s just given me a whole lot of experience you can’t really find in any other role,” Smith said.
One of the questions general manager Rick Spielman always asks the rookies who join the team is how they’ll establish themselves in the locker room.
“When you talk to these two, they know they have to come in at first and show their work ethic and show how much passion they have,” Spielman said. “First in, last out of the building. Then they’re going to have to go out and prove it out on the field. As those things fall in to place that’s when you start to develop that leadership.”
That process shouldn’t be a problem for these players, judging by their past.
Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson worked with Kalil’s older brother, Ryan, a Pro Bowl center with the Carolina Panthers, before he came to Minnesota. So he’s familiar with the family, including father, Frank, a former Buffalo Bills draft pick and USFL player who has coached at the youth level for decades.
“Low maintenance,” was how Davidson described Kalil.
Southern Californians don’t always carry such labels, but the Kalils live in Corona, a relatively isolated community southeast of Los Angeles.
“There’s not a lot of glitz and glamour and bars and stuff like that. It’s just your ordinary town,” Frank Kalil said at Winter Park after watching his son hold up a No. 67 Vikings jersey at a podium, pose for pictures and answer questions from reporters during his first introduction to Minnesota.
“Matt’s personality I think blends in real well in this state, how he carries himself,” Frank Kalil said. “He’s not a Hollywood guy. He’s more of a stay-at-home guy. His buddies come over, and they go get something to eat, go watch a movie, those types of things. He’s not really a bar-hopper or any of that. I think the pace out here, he’ll fit in. Plus he just bought a Ford truck, so he’s ready to go. His friends from California were like, ‘Why didn’t you get a Beamer?'”
Kalil called the F-150 his dream car.
“That’s the kind of guy I am,” he said, “and I also love to be a good teammate and a good family man.”
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