Brandon Zylstra comes from small-town Minnesota, but he hopes to make big strides in the big city this year.
Zylstra is getting set to attend his second training camp with the Minnesota Vikings. The wide receiver, who grew up in Spicer and played the final three seasons of his college career at Division III Concordia-Moorhead, was in Elgin on Saturday to help out with the youth football camp put on by brothers Travis and Carson Walch.
Carson Walch, now a wide receivers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, coached Zylstra for two seasons in Edmonton of the Canadian Football League.
“In Edmonton, he was a high-class kid who worked hard,” Carson Walch said. “He would do anything you asked him to do so I’m sure he’s doing the same with the Vikings. And I know he’s worked very hard to get on the field.”
Last season Zylstra was active for all 16 games, but only played about 20 snaps on offense. He did catch one pass for 23 yards. He made his biggest impact on special teams. He filled in as the Vikings’ punt returner when Rochester’s Marcus Sherels was injured and averaged 6.5 yards on four returns. He also returned one kickoff for 15 yards and had one tackle on special teams.
“I was consistent in practice and they trusted me,” Zylstra said.
Zylstra, who once high jumped 6-feet, 11-inches in college, is hoping to take a big leap in his second training camp with the Vikings. He reports on June 25 and said he will feel more relaxed this season.
“I think it’s huge because I think back to all my second years in the past — even starting with high school — and that first year you’re just trying to get your feet wet, trying to figure out how everything is ran, how the offense is ran, how to take care of your body. All of that kind of stuff.”
In the CFL, Zylstra spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad. In his second year, he broke out with 100 catches a league-best 1,687 yards.
“I’m hoping the same thing translates to the NFL” he said. “Last year, my rookie year, I basically did special teams. I’m hoping to get an active role in the offense now.”
The Vikings have two main receiving standouts in Minnesota native Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. After that the role for the No. 3 receiver is wide open.
“I think my skill set is just knowing the playbook really well, being super versatile and on super-short notice being able to go play X position, play Z position or Y position,” Zylstra said. “And I know that’s something the Vikings were pretty happy about. They complimented me several times on how willing I was to play anywhere and my understanding of the offense.”
If Zylstra earns more playing time this season, he will have to beat out a number of other candidates. Former first-round draft choice Laquon Treadwell is still in the mix, Chad Beebe and Jeff Badet both had limited roles and were injured a year ago, 6-foot-5 Jordan Taylor was signed as a free agent and the Vikings drafted Dillon Mitchell and Olabisi Johnson, both in the seventh round.
“We brought in a bunch of talent; I think it’s underrated talent,” Zylstra said. “I think they have a great receiving core right now and I think they did a good job with the draft, too. I like a lot of these rookies, but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t going for that third spot. I think that’s everybody’s goal coming in. So that’s my goal is to kind of take over that third spot.”
In Canada, he moved around a lot in receiving sets. He excelled in the slot, but Zylstra said the Vikings like him more on the outside. He said versatility is one of his strengths.
“Another skill set is, I think I attack the ball well and catch the ball well,” he said.
Zylstra said he had a different approach to this past off season.
“Every year you’re going to learn stuff about your body and about the game,” Zylstra said. “I took what I learned last year and tried to apply it this year. I’m a little bit lighter this year starting off with camp and that’s something that going through OTAs, I feel a lot smoother and a lot more precise in my routes.”
Zylstra, who is about 6-foot-3, played at a high weight of 225 last season and was around 216 much of the year. This season he intends to report to camp weighing 210.
“Just those five, six or seven pounds really make a difference in my body,” he said. “Last year, I thought I was a little bit heavy so I thought I would be a little bit faster if I could keep my same power and strength and be more efficient in my routes.”
“We’re excited for him,” Walch said. “I think he’s going to have a heck of a career in the NFL.”
Guy N. Limbeck is a sports writer for the Post Bulletin. His Local Notebook appears each Tuesday. He can be reached at email@example.com