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Four Things We Learned at the Vikings' Second Open OTA Practice of 2022

Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a new name to watch in the punt returner mix.

The Vikings held their fifth OTA practice of the spring on Tuesday — and the second one that was open to reporters.

I wasn't able to attend last week's open practice, but I was out at TCO Performance Center this time around.

Unlike training camp practices where players are in pads and there are 11-on-11, 7-on-7, and 1-on-1 reps at nearly full speed, this phase of the offseason is more about learning. The Vikings' coaching staff is teaching systems, schemes, and techniques, and players are translating that to the field while building chemistry with their teammates.

Thus, most of my takeaways from Tuesday aren't about what happened on the practice field, but what we heard from coaches and players afterwards. Let's get to four things we learned.

One quick note: Harrison Smith was the lone projected starter not practicing, which meant Cam Bynum, Lewis Cine, and Josh Metellus spent time with the first-team defense at safety.

1. Chris Reed might be the early favorite to start at right guard

One of the few on-field things I noticed was that Chris Reed, not Jesse Davis, took the first-team reps at the Vikings' open right guard spot. Last week, those two were reportedly splitting reps. There's a ton of time left until Week 1 and this will be a situation to continue monitoring, but it wouldn't surprise me if Reed is internally viewed as the favorite to win that job right now — which was my initial view after the team signed him.

Davis has more career starts at guard than Reed, but he spent most of the last three seasons playing tackle. Reed is an interior-only guy who has played well over the past couple years, especially last season with the Colts when he was thrust into action.

Jesse Davis was at RG with the second unit on Tuesday, while Wyatt Davis was at left guard. Rookie second-rounder Ed Ingram will have to work his way up the depth chart this offseason.

“We’ve got a lot of time before we actually decide as far as who’s starting day one, game one, against the Green Bay Packers, but we like the group that we have," said offensive coordinator Wes Phillips. "We like that there’s a pool of talent there, and a lot of guys who have a lot of different skill sets that we can kind of just throw ‘em out there and see how they progress, keep coaching ‘em, and kind of see who rises to the top."

2. Irv Smith Jr. keeps progressing

Fourth-year tight end Irv Smith Jr. isn't back to full participation in practice quite yet after tearing his meniscus in the final preseason game last year, but he's getting very close. Smith was out there for some full-team reps and appears to be capable of running and cutting at high speed.

"Just last week, I remember he ran a seam (route) where he had to bend inside versus Cover 2, and he really stuck his foot in the ground and he ripped in there, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s the Irv that I saw on tape from a couple years ago right there,'" Phillips said. "So he’s progressing really well."

Getting Smith back will provide a major boost to the Vikings' offense. He was incredible in last year's training camp and looked to be well on his way to a breakout season before he got hurt. Smith should be completely good to go by this year's training camp, but the Vikings are still exercising caution with him right now because they now how important he is to what they want to do.

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"I know there were a lot of folks excited about him last fall, before that injury happened," head coach Kevin O'Connell said last week. "And I think where he’s at in his career and some of the success he’s had, both with how we’re going to use him and then, ultimately, where he’s at in his career, I think he’s ready to kind of absorb all this and be in a position to go play fast, go play with a bunch of confidence that he’s going to be a major part of what we do. It’s just making sure that we’re doing it in a really responsible way as he continues to progress back."

3. The Vikings' kicker competition is going to be fun

After the Vikings did some red zone work and wrapped up with a two-minute drill, the kicking competition entered the spotlight. Incumbent veteran Greg Joseph made a 39-yarder to complete the two-minute drive with a "game-winner," then made another five in a row in drills, each one longer than the last. That included a make from 54 yards out, but Joseph sent one barely wide right from 56 yards after that.

Then undrafted rookie Gabe Brkic got a turn, drilling all three of his attempts with an effortless-looking kicking motion. The Oklahoma product will have to kick really well to beat out Joseph, but it's definitely possible. He has a big leg and a ton of confidence.

"I think the biggest thing when you look at Gabe and his career is he really showed up in pressure situations," special teams coordinator Matt Daniels said. "He has a true mental toughness, really a true professional when it comes to how he sees the kicks, how he sees it through, really intentional about working on his craft. He comes up to my office every single day to refresh his memory and go back over the tape and you can see that professionalism showing up early."

"There will be a full-on kicker competition and punter competition," Daniels said. "That’s why we brought in Gabe Brkic and Ryan Wright — to push those veterans that we have and push each other. Competition makes us better, so we want to try and create as many game-like situations as we can, but also pressure situations. So just having that competitive guy right next to you, mentally it does something to you so we’ll see how guys respond to it."

4. Ihmir Smith-Marsette could be in the mix to return punts

In other special teams news, a new name has entered the mix at punt returner.

The Vikings' kick returner isn't in doubt — it's Kene Nwangwu, who led the NFL with two kickoffs returned for touchdowns as a rookie. But at punt returner, there isn't a clear option with Dede Westbrook no longer on the roster.

K.J. Osborn is the Vikings' only player who has returned a punt in the NFL, but it didn't go very well when he did so in 2020. Plus, he's an important part of the offense as the No. 3 receiver, so I'm not sure they'll want him returning punts. Sixth-round pick Jalen Nailor has some experience returning punts in college, but not a ton.

Keep an eye on Ihmir Smith-Marsette for that job. Smith-Marsette was a kick returner at Iowa, but Daniels thinks he has the skillset to return punts. The Vikings are "bringing him along" in that area of the game. There are notable differences between the two jobs, starting with just tracking and catching the ball.

"There's a big difference," Daniels said. "Most importantly, really, is just the tracking and catching of the punts, it's far different from a punt standpoint than it is from a kickoff standpoint. How the revolutions of the ball work: right-footed punter, when the nose comes down it's going to travel deep and left, whereas if the nose is up it's going to fall short and right, so just the ability to track it and catch it is something that we've really been trying to work on. 

"These guys are rusty. Yesterday we went through a whole entire schedule of it, and you can see the rust kind of being knocked off. Just having a better understanding of how to track it, how to catch it, squaring the football up, having our feet in the right position so when that gunner is taking his shot we're able to make him miss and get vertical with a football."

Thanks for reading. Make sure to bookmark this site and check back daily for the latest Vikings news and analysis all offseason long. Also, follow me on Twitter and feel free to ask me any questions on there.