EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Few NFL rookie quarterbacks swap outdoors stories with their teammates, and even fewer can top a grizzled assistant coach’s tales of hunting in Montana.
But Minnesota Vikings quarterback James Vandenberg found a way to hush offensive line coach Jeff Davidson during offseason workouts. The two talked about bear hunting, and Vandenberg brought up his trip to Canada, where he killed a bear while bow hunting last year.
“He was bear hunting a couple of weeks ago, and we kind of shared stories. I kind of made him jealous of my story,” Vandenberg said. “Certainly it’s something down the line I’ll get to do again. But in all honesty, not too very soon.”
Vandenberg, who started the last two seasons as Iowa, is one of four quarterbacks vying for three probable roster spots with the Vikings. Two have positions locked up: starter Christian Ponder and back-up Matt Cassel. Vandenberg so far has taken the fourth-team repetitions in drills and mini-camp behind McLeod Bethel-Thompson, but that doesn’t mean he’s an afterthought. In fact, he’s far from discouraged just six weeks into his pro career.
“I think it’s definitely too early (to worry about repetitions),” he said. “But as a young guy, as a three or a four … the reps are going to go to those ones and twos. You know that going in. That’s pretty similar as college. (My) job is to be ready when you have that chance to go in and make the most of it. Really focus when Christian is in there, when Matt is there, kind of taking their reps as my own and saying, ‘OK, would I have made that decision, did I see this, did I see that?’”
Vandenberg largely works in running drills while the other quarterbacks throw to receivers. So far he has made a good impression on the Vikings’ coaching staff.
“He’s got great visualization skills,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “He doesn’t get a lot of turns, but I feel like he knows our system very well. He visualizes the concepts, he knows protections and when he gets in there the wheels don’t fall off. He definitely belongs up here.”
As a junior at Iowa, Vandenberg, 23, threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns, both statistics ranking among the school’s top four single-season efforts. But last year his numbers faltered, passing for only 2,249 yards and seven touchdowns while taking every snap.
Last year’s performance ended any draft hopes, and Vandenberg sifted through free-agent offers once the draft concluded in late April. He picked Minnesota because it offered him the best opportunity. Contrary to some reports, he was never close to signing with Dallas.
“In all honesty, I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “Somebody told me that days later, congrats with Dallas or whatever, and I respectfully said that wasn’t true. I’m not exactly sure how that happened. I had some teams, a couple of teams offer me a free-agent deal and Minnesota was by far the best fit. It’s been a great five weeks so far.”
He’s been exposed to the “Iowa treatment” since landing in Minnesota. Three former Hawkeyes — linebacker Chad Greenway, defensive tackle Christian Ballard and guard Seth Olsen — also play for the Vikings. Vandenberg said the former Iowa players, along with defensive end Jared Allen and others have “certainly kind of beaten me up like their little brother enough to where the stars have gone away.”
“I always try to reach out and make sure they get the Iowa treatment from the equipment staff or from the media staff and really all the way around,” said Greenway, a two-time Pro Bowler. “It’s important for me, being a veteran, to give those guys an opportunity that I had given to me. So it was the same for Ballard, Albert Young when he played up here, Allen Reisner and now James Vandenberg coming up here.
“Vandenberg’s a rookie so rookies always have to have a rite of passage,” said Ballard, who played with Vandenberg from 2008-2010. “He’s a cool dude. We kind of make fun of him, throw a couple of jokes at him, but he’s a good guy.”
Former Iowa teammate and current Indianapolis Colts linebacker Pat Angerer continues to harass Vandenberg. The two were known for their smack-talking and wrestling battles, which at one time led Angerer to choke out Vandenberg. They remain good friends.
“Pat keeps texting me every day and says I should probably quit,” Vandenberg said. “I stay in contact with him a lot. He’s a great guy.”
He also remains tight with former wide receiver Marvin McNutt and former offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe. Both now are employed by the Miami Dolphins.
“Marv called me right after he made the switch to Miami,” Vandenberg said. “We kind of joked with Coach O’Keefe being his quarterback coach again. I talked to Coach O’Keefe a lot going up to the draft and those certainly guys that I’m going to talk to for the rest of my life.”
Since joining the Vikings, Vandenberg has concentrated on learning the offense, improving his fundamentals and throwing with a higher-release point. He feels confident he knows most of the system, and gains comfort with every practice.
His goal, however, remains clear. He wants to make the final roster.
“I think that’s what just about everybody’s mindset is,” he said. “There’s a handful of guys that are pretty secure, the Adrian Petersons of the world. But I think a lot of guys in our locker room have the mindset that they want to make the team, whether they’ve been here for three years or they’ve been here for none. That’s kind of my goal, and I’m just trying to work every day to do that.”
On the wow factor of joining an NFL team:
“I don’t think I have them anymore. Certainly when you show up the first time in the locker room and there’s a lot of veterans, Chad Greenways of the world. I’m pretty lucky to know him a little bit going into this, know getting to know him a little bit more, the Jared Allens, the Adrian Peterson, (Christian) Ponder, we’ve got a room full of guys that have played for a while. They’ve certainly kind of beaten me up like their little brother enough to where the stars have gone away.”
If the Vikings have changed his fundamentals:
“Fundamentally, I don’t know if they’ve messed with me a whole bunch. I think they’re pretty happy with my fundamentals. It’s just getting more and more reps. I entering my sixth year basically of college or higher level football. You think of a guy like Matt Cassel, and he’s been in the NFL for nine years, and I hear him talk all the time about the strides he’s made. It’s just that many more reps I’m going to get to take. That many more practices. So I’m just continuing my footwork, my accuracy, my release point, all of it. Basically it comes down to reps, and we always talked at Iowa about the 10,000-hour rule. You haven’t mastered something until 10,000 hours. Certainly I’m hoping to continue towards that goal.”
On how working with former Iowa QB and current Kansas City Chiefs back-up Rick Stanzi prepared him for his time at Iowa and with the Vikings:
“That helped me prepare for my two years at Iowa, the ups and downs at Iowa, Certainly Rick had that as well. He’s been a great teacher for me. I actually got see him this weekend for the first time in probably a year. We had a great time and just talked about football and this and that. Certainly the things I’ve learned sitting behind him and how he dealt with things helped me in college and it’s still carrying over today.”
What has he learned since joining the Vikings:
“I think just to be ready for every rep. That’s different. Certainly everybody here was a starter in college. Unless you’re a top-round guy, you’re not coming in here kind of a starter. Learning how to take the fewer amount of reps in stride, learning how to stand on the sideline and take the reps the other guys have, I think that’s something that’s an adjustment coming in and something I can get better at every day. Because you never know when you’re going to get thrown in there at this level they surely expect you to know everything that’s been going on. So just trying to get as much prepared as I can be.”
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