Devin Hester still has it.
That’s the assessment of the Chicago Bears punt and kick returner offered by Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, despite Hester now being 30 years old and in his eighth NFL season.
For appetizers, Priefer ranks Hester as the top returner in the league – currently and probably ever. For the main dish, Priefer offers a heaping helping of praise.
“He ranks No. 1. There’s no one even close. He’s in an elite class; he’s in a class by himself because of what he’s done in his past,” Priefer said Thursday as he prepared a rookie punter to face Hester for the first time. “People have asked me this week and during the offseason, has he slowed down a bit? I don’t think so. I think he’s just as dangerous as he’s ever been.
“Speed. Elusiveness. On punt returns, he always can make the first guy miss. He’s got better vision than any returner I’ve ever had to prepare for. He can see things long before they happen and he can set things up and set up the coverage team. He can see what’s going to happen before anybody else can. He’s unique and very rare in that instance.”
The credentials solidly back Priefer’s praise.
Hester is a three-time All-Pro and was named to the Associated Press all-decade team in 2009. He had an amazing six kick and punt returns for touchdowns as a rookie in 2006, an NFL single-season record.
He also holds the all-time record for combined career kick return touchdowns with 17, 12 of those coming on punt returns.
All of those honors and statistics come cascading down on Vikings rookie punter Jeff Locke for his second NFL game when the Vikings travel to Chicago on Sunday. It probably doesn’t help that Locke admittedly struggled in last Sunday’s opener at Detroit. Priefer believes Locke was just nervous and got his confidence back this week in practice.
But there was also a breakdown in fundamentals. Locke may have been rushing to the get his punts off too soon, causing his footwork before kicking it got out of whack.
“I think you just have to go back to what made you a good punter. His fundamentals, his leg strength and believing in his drop and believing in his leg swing, that’s what we emphasized with him this week,” Priefer said.
The Vikings know better than anyone what a threat Hester is. One of his six kickoff returns for touchdowns and three of his 12 punt returns for touchdowns have come against the Vikings.
Of course, all of those were before Locke was on board. All of the punt returns came off the foot of Chris Kluwe, who spent 2005-12 with the Vikings. Kluwe and the Vikings’ coverage units had all sorts of issues containing Hester, so much so that a friend of Kluwe gave him a figurine of him diving unsuccessfully as Hester ran past.
The Vikings liked Locke’s ability to directional kick when they scouted him at UCLA, but Priefer noted that it is easier to punt the ball out of bounds and still get decent distance because the hash marks are closer to the sidelines in the NCAA.
“There’s a fine line how much coaching you do in terms of how much direction you want to use (against Hester),” Priefer said. “To me, if it’s high and it’s good hang time, if it’s good hang time and it’s decent distance we should be OK.”
LOOKING FORWARD TO WILLIAMS’ RETURN
All signs point to Kevin Williams being able to play in Chicago after missing Sunday’s opener in Detroit because of a knee injury.
“So far, so good,” Frazier said after Thursday’s practice. “If everything goes fine tomorrow, I’m looking forward to him playing on Sunday. He’s doing well.”
Williams said he felt good after going through Wednesday’s practice, but he acknowledged Thursday would be a bigger test for him with the team back in pads for more contact.
“I asked him (Thursday) morning, how did he feel, concerned if he was going to have any swelling or soreness,” Frazier said. “He said, ‘I feel pretty good.’ The only soreness was from the inactivity, not being able to run like he had before. He feels good. So hopefully tomorrow will be the same way.”
Despite the optimisim, Frazier said Williams’ snaps would be monitored if he does play Sunday.
The Vikings didn’t have any major changes to their injury report from Wednesday. In addition Williams, CB Josh Robinson (quadriceps), C John Sullivan (knee) and RT Phil Loadholt (knee) were all limited, as they were the previous day.
The only change was Jamarca Sanford being taken off the injury report after Wednesday’s appearance with a shoulder injury, indicating that the shoulder was no longer a concern.
For the Bears, DE Julius Peppers (illness) and CB Charles Tillman (not injury related) didn't participate. Tillman didn’t practice Wednesday because of a knee injury but was excused from Thursday’s practice for a different reason.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.