EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — A look at the rushing leaders for the Minnesota Vikings through three preseason games and the big names don’t lead the list.
Adrian Peterson, of course, is easing his way back in after major knee surgery in December. Toby Gerhart, Peterson’s effective backup the past two years, has taken the reps of a No. 1 running back in the preseason, having his chances limited. In their place, a quartet of backs have been given a shot to win the third running back spot on Minnesota’s roster behind Peterson and Gerhart.
The name atop the rushing list this preseason? Matt Asiata.
Asiata, listed as a fullback, wasn’t even expected to challenge for a running back spot at the beginning of training camp. Expectations were veteran power back Lex Hilliard and young, speedy Jordan Todman would be battling for the final running back spot on the 53-man roster. Undrafted rookie Derrick Coleman was also in the mix.
However, Asiata, given a chance at running back after Todman has struggled with a sprained ankle during training camp and the preseason, has run for a team-high 91 yards on 16 carries. But this battle is far from over with one preseason game left, especially after Hilliard and Asiata fumbled in last week’s game and Todman played for the first time this preseason.
“Nobody distinguished themselves the other night,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “It’s still open. It’s open competition and you got to keep your eyes on the guys you have on your roster but also see what happens around the league. We’ll see what happens on Thursday night. Hopefully somebody will take the bull by the horns and really separate themselves and say, ‘This is my position. This is my job on this football team.’ We’ll see.”
Asiata has surprised with a 5.7 yards-per-carry average, including the big back rumbling for a run of 22 yards. He’s added two catches, including a touchdown reception.
“I’ve got to keep pushing, nothing’s locked over here,” Asiata said. “Every chance I get to prove the coaches what I can do, I’m going to try and do my best to do it and just go hard at it. Whatever coaches want me to do. I just have to work hard to try and make the 53-man.”
At 6-foot, 234 pounds, Asiata ran for 1,748 yards at Utah, while playing tailback and fullback, and ended third on the school’s list with 26 touchdowns. He is in his second training camp with the Vikings. He was cut at the end of the preseason last year and signed to the practice squad but was released from a few days later.
He came back this season hoping to carve out a role on the active roster, but his opportunity appeared distant with Minnesota signing veteran fullback Jerome Felton in the offseason. A slight position change and his chances have improved greatly. With one preseason game left, Asiata knows Thursday’s preseason finale at Houston can make-or-break his time with the Vikings.
“I’ve got to play with a chip on my shoulder,” Asiata said. “There’s a lot of pressure going on, and this Thursday just prove what I can do and what I can accomplish in this game.”
Asiata’s versatility could help him in the fight for a roster spot given that he can play fullback as well as special teams. Hilliard’s edge appeared to be his NFL experience and ability to play special teams. But he’s had nine carries for just 20 yards in the preseason and also had a costly fumble.
Todman has been behind in his quest for a spot since spraining his ankle early in camp. He appeared to be fighting through the injury even after he returned to practice. Playing his first game last week, he had two carries for seven yards and caught an 11-yard swing pass. Coleman has had a team-high 19 carries going for just 50 yards.
Asiata meanwhile, aside from the fumble last week, has shown his versatility and ability to carry the ball.
“He’s done some things that make you pay attention to him,” Frazier said. “He’s had some nice runs. He has good vision when he’s running with the football. He can play a little bit of fullback and he’s shown some versatility catching the ball out of the backfield. So he’s done some things to make you want to pay attention. We’ll give him some reps in the ball game and continue to keep him in the mix as we try to make the determination if he’s worthy of that third running back spot.”
After Friday’s game, with three total fumbles, no one is a lock for the roster.
“They all work tremendously hard and we’re going to give all three of them another opportunity on Thursday night,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “They did some good things, we put the ball on the ground the other night, which we don’t want to see. But other than that their effort has been good and they’ve been working really hard.
Simpson doesn’t have to leave: Frazier said receiver Jerome Simpson won’t need to stay away from the team’s facilities when his suspension takes place next week for the first three weeks of the regular season.
According to Frazier, Simpson can still be in the meetings and work out with the strength coach, but he can’t practice or work out with teammates.
“We were told by the league that he can still be around the building,” Frazier said. “He just can’t participate in our practices. He doesn’t have to leave our team. He just can’t participate in the things we’re doing.”
Getting a good look at Bethel-Thompson: Frazier said that current fourth-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson will see the majority of action at quarterback during Thursday’s game, possibly playing the entire second half.
With cuts to the final 53-man roster coming a day after the game, the coaches could be trying to see if Bethel-Thompson could potentially beat out Sage Rosenfels for the third quarterback spot.
“You never know, the door’s not shut,” Frazier said. “We’d like to see how he’s does. He’s done well in practice from the time we had him back in the spring through the preseason. We’d like to see how he does again in a game situation.”
Backup Joe Webb will start on Thursday and Frazier said he’ll play at least through the first quarter. Rosenfels will play the second quarter before giving way to Bethel-Thompson.