Vikings think Ponder will make great progress

After rough rookie year, beefed-up QB taking control of offense, especially with Peterson out

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MANKATO, Minn. — After losing 11 straight games to NFC North opponents, the Vikings' view of the division might be similar to an ant's view of a Redwood forest.

But, believe it or not, they have high hopes.

"Stranger things have happened," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.

The Vikings point to the growth of second year quarterback Christian Ponder, the consistent excellence of NFL sack leader Jared Allen, the presence of football's best runner Adrian Peterson and an influx of young players who don't know the Vikings are expected to roll over for the Packers, Lions and Bears.

But whereas the other NFC North teams are primed to win now, the Vikings clearly still are trying to find themselves.

The Vikings' offseason purge left them without 10 players who started more than half the team's games last year (including kicker Ryan Longwell). The previous offseason, they lost seven starters.

They will not call this rebuilding, but the rest of the world will.

"I imagine our average age will make us one of the youngest teams in the league," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "Two years ago, we were the oldest team in the league. We needed to get younger."

Going young usually means going home before the playoffs start, but the Vikings veterans are having none of that.

"I've never been a believer in saying we're young, and that's an excuse," Allen said. "We're all getting paid to play football and we're here for a reason."

Ponder is showing signs of NFL quarterback maturation. And it goes beyond the thick beard he has grown and the 20 or so pounds he put on in the offseason to get above 230.

"Ponder is going to be better," Spielman said. "He has so much more confidence, so much more confidence."

Ponder made in NFL debut against the Bears in October, replacing an ineffective Donovan McNabb in a loss at Soldier Field. He started the Vikings' last 10 games, winning two. He completed only 54.3 percent of his passes and threw 13 interceptions.

Ponder did not have the benefit of normal learning in the offseason before his rookie year because of the lockout. And then the Vikings coaching staff did not give him many reps in training camp because they were trying to acclimate McNabb, who also was a newcomer.

It was frustrating for Ponder to see fellow rookies Cam Newton and Andy Dalton make the transition to the pros seem simple.

"It definitely puts a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I know those guys. To see them play well and to know I didn't play as well definitely motivates me. But they obviously are good players."

Now Ponder is working on not forcing passes, knowing his reads, developing chemistry with teammates and preparing his body to avoid injuries (he couldn't finish two games last year after getting hurt).

To bulk up, the 6-foot-2 Ponder hit the weights and ate right.

"My dad was a defensive lineman, so I have the genes," he said. "It's not hard for me to put on weight."

He offset weightlifting with hot yoga to increase flexibility, which he found to be "good not only for my body but my mind as well."

Ponder also is taking ownership of both the locker room and the offense. Just the other day, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave changed a route at Ponder's suggestion.

Ponder has a lot more going for him in 2012 than he did as a rookie out of Florida State, including a new left tackle (Matt Kalil was the fourth pick of the draft) and a dynamic new wide receiver (free agent Jerome Simpson, the former Bengal who is famous for his front flip touchdown over Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington).

The Vikings may have to rely more on the passing game this year, given Peterson's status. The all pro running back tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in December and has yet to be cleared for practice. There is some hope he may be ready to play at or near the start of the season, but even if he is, he may not resemble the runner who has earned the nickname "Purple Jesus."

Backup Toby Gerhart likely will have a more prominent role for the Vikings.

"You would think there will be more split carries with Toby early on just because of the injury if you look at the history of guys with ACLs and how long it takes them," Frazier said. "But Adrian is not typical in the way he responds to injuries. He is genetically different."

The Vikings have to hope being different is an advantage.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei
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