Vikings rookie kicker honored to follow Longwell
MINNEAPOLIS — Blair Walsh never had the chance to compete against Ryan Longwell to be Minnesota's kicker this season.
He didn't even get to meet him.
Yes, the job is already Walsh's, barring training camp trouble or the sudden availability of a too-good-to-pass-up alternative. The significance of this important, coveted position has not been lost on the rookie drafted by the Vikings in the sixth round out of Georgia.
"There are 32 of these jobs. To have one of them right now is exciting and humbling," Walsh said in a phone interview Tuesday after the Vikings held their first spring practice, known around the league as organized team activities.
Walsh said he didn't step onto the field with any different feelings about being on top of the depth chart, which until earlier this month still listed Longwell's prominent name first. The 16-year veteran was let go earlier this month in a cost-cutting move. Despite a down 2011 season during which he made 22 of 28 field-goal attempts, Longwell recorded 633 points in six years with the Vikings. That's third in franchise history behind Fred Cox and wide receiver Cris Carter, and Cox was with the team for 15 seasons.
"To come in behind him and be able to play after him is a big honor. He has big shoes to fill, that's for sure," Walsh said. "I would like to have met him and learned from him, but it is what it is."
Walsh is a former soccer prodigy who once was part of the U.S. Olympic development program but became burnt out on that sport and switched to football as a sophomore in high school. He left college as the all-time leading scorer in Southeastern Conference history, though he slumped his senior year and made only 21 of 35 field goals. General manager Rick Spielman said recently the team wasn't concerned about his drop-off and expressed confidence that Walsh can be as reliable as Longwell.
"You look at the history: He was a 90 percent kicker most of his career ... and the kickoffs are exceptional from all the work that we've done on him," Spielman said.
With punter Chris Kluwe and long snapper Cullen Loeffler together with Longwell since he first signed with Minnesota in 2006, the Vikings had the longest-tenured special-teams trio in the league. They became close friends, too, making the comedy movie "Anchorman" their primary source of inside jokes.
Kluwe said earlier this month he realized the quick-replacement nature of the NFL, but that won't make him miss Longwell any less.
"We got along together great, and I think we functioned pretty well as a special teams unit, too," Kluwe said, recalling his favorite memory: "During a game our second year together, we went out to hit a field goal from 52 or 53 yards. Ryan caught it a little underneath, and I said 'Get there' as the ball was in flight. He made the kick, and afterward he asked me, 'Did you really just say 'Get there'?' We started cracking up. Ever since then, that's been our phrase of choice whenever we don't hit it quite right."
Walsh said he's eager to join the clique.
"Some of my best friends in life are other kickers and punters and snappers. It's nice to have that common interest. I think these guys are very relatable," he said, before offering his own self-analysis: "I'm just a pretty normal guy. I'm not weird like the other kicker stereotypes out there. I like spending time with my friends and family. I like to golf. That's about it."