Starting Specialists To Get More Action

Aundrae Allison (Jim Mone/AP)

The Vikings have spent the first half of the preseason evaluating their young players returning kickoffs and punts. That won't be the case as often on Saturday.

Now that the skill-position rookies have had their opportunity to put their return skills on tape in the first two preseason games, it's time for the big boys to show what they can do.

Just like the offensive and defensive starters will play into the third quarter of Saturday's third preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, some of the main special-teams players who are expected to contribute during the regular season will be getting their first preseason opportunities.

"It's no different for us than it is for the offense or defense," said special teams coordinator Paul Ferrraro. "We expect to see improvement from those first two games. We're going to get some of our starters involved that haven't been involved in the first two preseason games, both on kickoff coverage and punt coverage."

That means that 2008 free-agent acquisition Maurice Hicks will get the majority of kick returns. Hicks averaged 22.9 yards per return on 185 returns in his four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Last year, Hicks had a pair of 55-yard returns against the Vikings in the second quarter and finished that game with 170 yards.

Hicks might also get some action returning punts, something he hasn't done yet this preseason and didn't do with the 49ers, but Aundrae Allison is expected to get his most extensive action returning punts. Allison has returned just two punts for six yards so far this preseason and Ferraro said it hasn't been determined who is the No. 1 punt returner.

"The hard thing with evaluating that right now is that he hasn't had the opportunities that some of the other guys have had, just from the standpoint of where the ball has been caught, the blocking that we've had and giving him a chance to show what he can do," Ferraro said of Allison. "So we want to get him more repetitions this week to find out exactly where he is. We don't have a number one returner right now."

Last year, that was Bobby Wade, who returned 16 punts but also called for a fair catch on 11 occasions. Wade averaged 7 yards per return and said he would be available to return punts again this year.

"I'm always available for that (punt returns), but we really haven't even had much conversation about it," Wade said. "They have some interest in seeing some of the younger guys and seeing how they would play out. Last year, I didn't take a lot of punt returns in the preseason either. So, coming into the season, when they start to cut it down on who they need and who they want, I think we'll see how it plays out from there. I still have an interest in doing it, want to do it. They definitely know I'm available for it."

Last year, Allison proved to the be the No. 1 kick returner, bringing back 20 for an average of 28.7 yards (a franchise record), but his role on offense is expected to be increased and the Vikings like what Hicks can do there, as well.

"Maurice Hicks is an outstanding kickoff returner, too," Ferraro said. "They're both kind of different in that respect, Maurice being a running back and Aundrae being a wide receiver. The fact that we have two, and one is a little bit faster than the other one. The other one of them maybe hits the middle return a little bit better. It was Aundrae's first year (last year), and for a first-year returner did a pretty good job. We certainly know we could use him back there. The fact that we have two, and even more options with Adrian Peterson maybe at some point if we need to, I like where we are there. The punt return is where we need to get it cleaned up, and that's what we're trying to find out this week."

The Vikings will also have their No. 1 kicker, Ryan Longwell, making his first appearance of the preseason. Rookie Steven Hauschka has been handling the kickoff, field goal and point-after duties in the first two preseason games in an effort to not overwork Longwell's leg, but the veteran is starting to increase his activity in anticipation of the regular season.

He is expected to handle at least the first-half duties Saturday.

"The only thing he hadn't been doing in practice is kickoffs. He's been, for the most part, doing his normal routine on field goals," Ferraro said. "A little bit less there because we have Steve in camp. He hasn't really had to kick off in practice."

After struggling at times during training camp with his trajectory and accuracy, Hauschka has hit all four of his point-after attempts and all four of his field goals – from 35, 21, 34 and 48 yards.

NOTES

  • Road construction could cause some snarls for motorists going to and from Saturday's game. Northbound Interstate 35W from I-494 to Highway 62 will close from 10 p.m. Friday until 4 p.m. Saturday. The southbound lanes will remain open during this timeframe. Then southbound Interstate 35W from I-494 to Highway 62 will close from 5 p.m. Saturday until 7 p.m. Sunday Aug. 24.The northbound lanes will remain open during this timeframe. Also, the ramp from eastbound Highway 62 to southbound I-35W will close from 10 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m. Monday so that crews can install a storm sewer beneath the ramp.

  • Through the first two games of the 2008 preseason, QB Tarvaris Jackson has completed 15 of 22 passes (68.2 percent) for 200 yards and two touchdowns. He hasn't been intercepted or sacked and has a 127.1 passer rating.

  • RB Chester Taylor, the former Baltimore Raven, has the most experience against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In eight games, he rushed 49 times for 194 yards (4.0 average) and caught 18 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

  • When he was a member of the Seattle Seahawks, Vikings safety Michael Boulware intercepted Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger in the second quarter of Super Bowl XL.

  • The Vikings have a 9-2 record against the Steelers in the preseason and are 8-7 against them in the regular season, but Pittsburgh won the game that mattered most, a 16-6 win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IX on Jan. 12, 1975.

  • The Vikings and USA Football, the sport's national governing body on youth and amateur levels, will host 4,000 youth football players at Saturday's game to celebrate the "Play Football … it's more than a game" campaign. Those youth are among 100,000 youngsters who will attend preseason games nationwide as part of "Play Football" through team-donated tickets.

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