The smells of freshly cut grass mixed with the scent of renewed hope.
The sounds of coaches' shouts and whistles mixed with the grunts and strains of players running wind sprints. The "oohs" and "ahhs" of diehard fans after exceptional yet ultimately meaningless plays by guys that will be lucky to make the practice squad next month. The first loud cracking of helmets during full-pad practices.
The sights of finely tuned athletes covered in iconic helmets and purple mesh darting about the practice field, all while hundreds of onlookers dissect their every move like they were reviewing a world-class ballet company.
The taste of turf that a young rookie gets after his first missed assignment.
The bittersweet sensation that the end of summer is closer than we'd like to admit--but real, honest-to-goodness NFL football is just around the corner.
It must be training camp time.
The Minnesota Vikings are holding their first official practice of the 2012 season on Friday morning at 10:30 at their usual post on the campus of Minnesota State University-Mankato. Yes, the 2012 NFL season is finally here. Although the Vikes struggled through an abysmal 2011 campaign, late July is that special time of year where every NFL team can still dream about what they might accomplish between now and early February. Every team is 0-0 for another six weeks and the beginning of training camp is where every squad starts to make their strides toward greatness.
"Greatness" is definitely not a word to describe a team coming off a 3-13 season, but here are some storylines to watch for if the Vikings hope to make positive strides in the upcoming season:
Thanks to Matt Kalil finally signing his rookie contract on Thursday, the Vikings will officially have all ten of their draft picks reporting to camp on Friday. Nobody will garner more attention than Kalil, the man entrusted with protecting quarterback Christian Ponder from the get-go. But other draftees will be expected to contribute right away as well: fellow first rounder Harrison Smith and third round selection Josh Robinson will be looked upon to help a secondary that was one of the worst in the league last year. Former Arkansas Razorback teammates Jarius Wright and Greg Childs hope to round out a receiving corps that was very thin after Percy Harvin. Rhett Ellison will try to fill the very large H-back shoes left by Jim Kleinsasser. Kicker Blair Walsh will attempt to overcome his sporadic senior year inaccuracy at Georgia and prove that releasing veteran Ryan Longwell was the right decision. Robert Blanton, Audie Cole, and Trevor Guyton will try to find a place where they can help the depth of Minnesota's defense and/or special teams. The Vikings simply must have at least a few of their rookies make an immediate impact if they hope to improve in 2012.
All signs are pointing to Adrian Peterson starting training camp on the "Active" PUP list. (No, it's not that PUP list where you're out for the first six weeks no matter what. Settle down.) The team and player are both hoping to have the all-world running back ready to play by Week 1, but it remains a huge question mark at the moment. Although AP might not do a single drill or walkthrough in Mankato, you can bet that he'll still garner the most headlines.
GM Rick Spielman has made it abundantly clear that he expects Christian Ponder to make huge strides in his sophomore season. The NFL has been a quarterback-driven league for a while now and much of Minnesota's success (or lack thereof) in the upcoming season can and will be attributed to the development of Ponder. If Ponder struggles out of the gate, expect the sizable amount of Joe Webb backers to get more and more vocal.
The other new guys
Most fans think the Vikings didn't make much of a splash during the free agency period, yet there are 14 new non-rookie faces in camp this year. Should hopes be high for wide receiver Jerome Simpson (pun sort of intended) after he returns from his three-game suspension? Tight end John Carlson could make a formidable bookend with fellow TE Kyle Rudolph if he can stay healthy--perhaps they could be a "Patriots Lite" that resembles the damage that Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez did last year? Can Chris Carr team with Antoine Winfield to provide a secondary that's actually respectable? Can Geoff Schwartz compete for a starting job on the offensive line? The more "yes" responses the Vikings get to these questions about their free agent acquisitions, the better off they'll be.
Let's face it--if the Vikings suffer through a season like they had last year, head coach Leslie Frazier will probably be out of a job. Most players seem to buy into Frazier's philosophy, but if it doesn't yield results it won't matter. Hopefully new Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams will be able to help the defense's cause and Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave will call plays that accentuate the strengths of his personnel. If not, we might be talking about a new coaching staff at this time next year.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Vikings will make noise in the NFL standings this year, but one thing's for certain--there's never a shortage of things to talk about with them.