EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Rookie linebacker Michael Mauti was on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice field Tuesday as he has been many times during the past few weeks, but Tuesday was different.
Instead of working on the side with athletic trainers, Mauti had a helmet for the first time in practice since he was drafted by Minnesota in the seventh round. Mauti, recovering from another knee surgery that caused his fall in the draft, was shadowing the team’s other middle linebackers, following in their footsteps as he tries to acclimate to the defense.
Mauti, the former Penn State linebacker, is still on track to be a full participant when training camp opens in July. For Mauti though, practicing even on a limited basis Tuesday was important in his mind, to remind the coaches who is out there wearing the white No. 56 jersey.
“It feels great, just to give the coaches something to see, like, ‘Hey, I’m not just standing around. Hey, this guy can actually contribute this season,'” Mauti said. “I feel great doing what I’m doing, just to be kind of running around with the guys and going through the reps, it feels real good.”
Mauti has been waiting for the moment to get back on the field, even though he was limited to mostly individual drills Tuesday. He saw three of his college seasons end because of knee injuries, three times tearing the anterior cruciate ligament. His NFL career was in doubt after his latest ACL tear in November.
Mauti — an intense, thickly built 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds — had the makings of a prototypical middle linebacker. His knees were betraying the rest of his body. But he knew he would make it back from his latest injury. He was so confident, he sent a note to all 32 NFL teams in December to stress how dedicated he was to returning.
He didn’t think the letter would become public. It did.
“I just wanted that to be between me and the general managers,” Mauti said in April after being drafted in the seventh round by the Vikings. “I wanted to let them hear from me about where I was and where my mindset was on getting back and healthy. I know I’ll be ready again and it’s all about how you rehab and fight back.”
Mauti’s fight finally has him back on the field doing football drills instead of cutting through sand chasing soccer balls, as he did during his rehab.
“He seems to be a guy who’s pretty driven,” Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. “He has an idea of what he thinks he can accomplish and how he can get it done; a guy with a single focus, which is not a bad thing at the position that we’re asking him to play. So, very focused guy, goal-oriented, has strong beliefs in his abilities, and those are good traits to have when you’re a linebacker.”
Mauti, the son of former New Orleans Saints receiver Rich Mauti, said Tuesday he’s right where he wants to be schedule-wise in his rehab, which has always focused on being ready for training camp. He says he feels as good now as he has throughout the entire process and getting out in individual drills Tuesday showed how close he is.
“Going through the individual stuff, I’m cutting as hard as I can,” Mauti said. “Nothing is holding me back at this point. At this point, just going at it hard and really just kind of teaching those muscles again to fire and be more explosive and get up to that to 100 percent, where I was.”
Mauti is trying to get a handle on the mental elements, while he’s waiting to be physically be released to do everything. He isn’t putting a percentage on where he is physically and is leaving the decision on his participation up to head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman.
Mauti’s expectation, though, is being back in that helmet and doing the drills himself — instead of shadowing Erin Henderson and Audie Cole — when training camp begins.
“Right now, it’s going to be up to the trainers and the medical staff as far as the way I feel,” Mauti said. “That’s what my expectations are. I expect to be ready. We’ll see how that goes. It depends on a number of different things. I have every expectation to be out there and running around. I feel great right now and don’t intend for there to be any setbacks.”