It's safety first for Vikings
By Dave Campbell
RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- Willie Offord fumbled his chance to start at safety last season for the Minnesota Vikings. He turned opportunity into an interception on Wednesday.
"Although it was thrown at his chest, you see many, many times when young players drop that pass," Vikings coach Mike Tice said, referring to a play in his team's morning workout with Kansas City in which Offord picked off a Chiefs' pass.
"Not even young players. You see all kind-of-age players drop that play, but it was nice to see the young man make that play," Tice said. "That will do wonders for his confidence."
It has a long way to go after last year. Offord started the first three games at strong safety, but he spent the rest of the season bouncing between the starting lineup, a reserve role and the inactive list.
Minnesota finished fourth-to-last in the league in pass defense last season, but the Vikings are banking on a better 2003 showing with the additions of veteran cornerbacks Denard Walker and Ken Irvin and improvement -- they hope -- by several young corners and safeties.
Corey Chavous -- a film-watching fanatic who's one of the game's most studious players -- is a lock to start at one safety position. His expertise has been invaluable for Offord, who appears to be with Brian Russell and Jack Brewer in the three-way competition for the other starting spot. Last year's free safety, Ronnie Bradford, retired.
"If Offord wins it, Chavous is the strong," Tice said. "If Brewer wins it, Chavous is the strong. If Russell wins it, then we move Chavous to free. That's the battle."
Tice pulled the three youngsters aside this week and stressed the importance of playing well in these four practices against Kansas City.
"It's a battle," said Russell, who got three starts last year at strong safety. "Even though Tice made it clear this is important, the fact of the matter is every day is important."
Russell's strength is just that, his strength. He was chastised by Tice for a couple unnecessarily hard hits earlier this week in practice.
Brewer, signed by the Vikings last year as an undrafted free agent after a stellar career with the Minnesota Gophers, could be a valuable special-teams player if he doesn't wind up starting.
"You know how fast the game is," he said. "I was nervous out there. This year, I'm more comfortable."
Offord, a third-round draft pick from South Carolina, was confused and overwhelmed at times by some of the defensive schemes last year.
"I'm definitely more comfortable, being in the league now," Offord said. "I've got a lot of guys around me that help me out now, more than I thought they would. Now I feel like I'm more comfortable out on the field."