Vikings suddenly have strong Irish flavor

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman’s roots are in the Midwest. He grew up in Ohio and played linebacker at Southern Illinois.

He’s now on his third professional team from the NFC North after starting as a scout for the Detroit Lions and serving as director of player personnel for the Chicago Bears.

So it’s not surprising he would hold an affinity for Notre Dame, one of the Midwest’s legendary football programs. But after selecting two players from the Irish in last month’s NFL Draft, even Spielman might be getting Notre Dame overload.

Last year, the Vikings drafted former Irish tight end Kyle Rudolph with a second-round pick. Add in free-agent signee tight end John Carlson and starting center John Sullivan, and Minnesota has five former Golden Domers who are expected to play key roles. And that realization led Spielman to joke with 2012 first-rounder Harrison Smith when he selected the former Irish safety 29th overall.

“I was just teasing him when I was on the phone with him that we’re almost reaching our quota with the amount of Notre Dame players that you can have out on the field at one time,” Spielman said. “But again, I can tell you, just like (fellow first-round pick Matt) Kalil, everything we are looking for in football players is what these two fill. Not only what they’re going to do on the field but also what they represent.”

Spielman seems to have an appreciation for what Notre Dame represents. Sullivan was the team’s sixth-round pick in 2008, Spielman’s second draft after arriving in Minnesota. After adding Rudolph, Carlson and Smith, Spielman took Notre Dame defensive back Robert Blanton in this year’s fifth round.

Sullivan, once the only Irish player on the roster, appreciates the company.

“You know, I have been kind of on an island for a while as far as Notre Dame goes until Kyle came here and then John (Carlson) comes in,” Sullivan said. “Harrison was a nice surprise when they traded back into the first round, and picking up Robert is great. He’s been a guy, when you watch Notre Dame games, (who) is always making plays. Hopefully they come in here and help us out.”

Spielman, who also drafted two players apiece from Southern Cal and Arkansas, called all the familiarity more of a coincidence than a designed plan. But adding four players from the same school in one year is likely more than happenstance.

Throughout the draft, Spielman spoke about leadership and passion for the game as points of emphasis in selecting players. Smith for instance, was a two-time captain for the Irish. He believes the experience has helped prepare him for the NFL.

“Going to Notre Dame and being a captain, you’re already on a big stage,” Smith said. “And then once you’re the captain you’re getting scrutinized win or lose. You know there’s ups and downs along the road. So I have dealt with being a leader of a team that’s gone through things, knowing how to deal with guys and helping younger guys, interact with the coaches. Being the guy in between the players and the coaches, I think it’s just given me a whole lot of experience you can’t really find in any other role.”

Smith remembers covering both Rudolph and Carlson in practices at Notre Dame. Not long after Smith was picked by the Vikings, texts started to roll in from the two Vikings tight ends. With all five in town last week for workouts, an all-Irish dinner was on the agenda.

“Once you go to a school like that and play together, there is a close bond there,” Smith said. “We are all excited to play together again.”

All five players have an opportunity to start this season for Minnesota. Sullivan is entrenched as the team’s center after signing a contract extension last season. Rudolph and Carlson are likely to be on the field together in the Vikings’ frequent two-tight end sets. With his first-round pedigree, Smith is already penciled in as a starter at free safety. Meanwhile, Blanton is making the move from cornerback to safety and could wrest the starting strong safety spot from veteran Jamarca Sanford.

With the Vikings in a full-blown youth movement, it’s likely Spielman would like nothing more than for a fifth-round pick to earn a starting spot as a rookie.

Blanton seemed to embrace the challenge at the team’s rookie minicamp last weekend. Asked what the team gets with a Notre Dame player, Blanton said, “A passionate, hard-working guy. To be an ND guy you’ve got to be a hard worker. We won’t give up, and you’re going to get a guy that’s a beast mentally and physically.”

Carlson, who missed Blanton by one year at Notre Dame, agreed.

“I’d like to think that we’re disciplined guys,” Carlson said. “The mental side of the game is a big part of the game, so the mental preparation is something that we take pride in. I like to think that we’re physically gifted enough to play at this level, too; hopefully the total package.”

Which is just what Spielman is hoping for, as well.

Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.