Blair Walsh (Kelley L. Cox/US Presswire)
Rookie kicker Blair Walsh started his career at one of the harder venues, with the swirling winds of Candlestick Park. He and coordinator Mike Priefer talked about the adjustments, handling the adversity and the next step.
As is usually the case, a first preseason game is a sloppy affair. The starters are shaking off the rust of an offseason and much of the game is competed between players that ultimately won’t make the final roster. It’s the nature of the business.
While the Vikings didn’t have a preseason opener in which many players stood out as being the real deal, one player that shined brighter than almost anyone else was rookie kicker Blair Walsh.
Not only did Walsh score all of the Vikings’ points (yes, all six), he boomed all of his kickoffs, helping pin the San Francisco 49ers inside their own 20-yard line and giving his defense a long field to work with. Had he done it in the Metrodome, it would have been impressive. The fact he did it in the chill and swirling winds of Candlestick Park was nothing short of amazing.
While one game (much less a preseason game) doesn’t cement a player’s career, Walsh showed skeptical Vikings fans that were stunned when the team released veteran Ryan Longwell – thus eliminating a kicking competition at training camp – why the Vikings used a draft pick on him and why he is going through camp unchallenged.
By his own admission, Walsh had some rookie jitters surrounding his first NFL game, but said it was time for him to start earning his place on the 2012 Vikings roster.
“There was a little bit of nerves,” Walsh said. “I had been drafted by the Vikings and brought in to follow one of the best kickers in the league. That’s a little bit of pressure because Ryan has been so good for so long. But, I had to go out and do my job and couldn’t think about it too much – just go out and do what comes naturally.”
The conditions at Candlestick were anything but favorable. After spending two weeks in Mankato sweating out temperatures consistently hovering about 90 degrees with little wind to cool, the Bay Area was almost surreal. The temperatures were in the high 50s with wind gusts of more than 25 mph swirling in the stadium and fog rolling up over the bowl of the stadium as the game progressed. Those that weren’t playing were bundled up like it was a December game – a far cry from the climate-controlled conditions Walsh will face in the Metrodome.
If special teams coach Mike Priefer wanted to see how Walsh would react under less-than-ideal conditions, the meteorological mess on display in San Francisco was just what the doctor ordered. Priefer decided to give Walsh the silent treatment during pregame warm-ups to see how his rookie would react. Clearly, Walsh passed that test.
“He was great,” Priefer said. “That was something I wanted to watch. I didn’t say a word to him. He kind of smiled at me when I first made contact with him. I went out (on the field) early. I went, ‘Oh, God, this is going to be fun.’ He did a really nice job in pregame and he didn’t worry about it. He was experimenting with the crosswind. Of course, the wind changed completely from the time we went in after pregame to the time we went out when the game actually started. I was very proud of the way he reacted because I’ve been around young kickers before and their eyes get real big. They want to make a good impression like any young player. He did not. He came out and did a great job for us.”
For his part, Walsh relished in the chance to have an indirect competition with 49ers Pro Bowl kicker David Akers. While Akers was struggling with pregame kicks of 50 yards, Walsh was banging them home from 60 while making golfer-like adjustments.
“I felt really good out there,” Walsh said. “When you get wind like you had there, you have to make corrections for it. If it’s blowing (from right to left), you have to aim farther to your right and figure out how much the wind is going to push it back. It goes against what you’re used to doing naturally, but it’s something everybody has to learn to do.”
Whether kicking into the wind or with the prevailing wind at his back, Walsh showed off a strong leg on kickoffs – one of the primary downsides to Longwell’s game. With the kickoff line moved up to the 35-yard line, kickers blessed with a strong leg can rocket kicks deep enough that the kick return game is eliminated from an opponent’s arsenal.
Of his three kickoffs Friday night, Walsh sent one out of the end zone and the other two came down six and eight yards deep in the end zone. The 49ers returned two of the three – but were held inside the 20-yard on both, which Priefer said was good to see not only from Walsh, but also the coverage team.
“I’m glad they brought them out,” Priefer said. “It’s good see our kickoff team get down there and make some plays and obviously Blair did a nice job kicking off for us.”
“The lowest (hang time) was right at 4.0 seconds,” Priefer said. “When you get that with the distance, you give your kickoff team time to run down there and make people think twice about bringing it out after a while.”
With so many question marks as to who will make up the 53-man roster of the Vikings, any reservations the team may have had about Walsh were greatly alleviated Friday. He took what they had seen during OTAs, minicamps and training camp and transferred that success to the field in live game action. Priefer has just one question remaining.
“Can he be consistent?” Priefer asked. “That’s really the big thing for any specialist. Whatever you are – a punter, a returner, long snapper or kicker – if you can be consistent, you can be successful most of the time.”
As for Walsh, he’s looking forward to getting back inside. Of the 19 games he is expected to play between Friday night’s preseason home opener with Buffalo to the regular season finale at the Metrodome against Green Bay, 15 of those games will be played indoors – something Walsh is extremely happy about.
“I was glad I was able to do my job fine in those conditions,” Walsh said. “Would I want to do that every week? No. But, fortunately, we’re going to have a lot of games where wind or rain or snow won’t be a factor. I won’t have any excuses, but that’s the way you want it to be.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.