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Litchfield's Carlson hopes for better 2nd chapter with Vikes

Associated Press Minnesota Vikings’ tight end John Carlson, right, runs the ball as safety Harrison Smith defends during the Vikings’ minicamp June 18 in Eden Prairie.

The “hometown boy returns and makes good” storyline fell apart on John Carlson and the Minnesota Vikings almost before it began in 2012.

A knee injury suffered on the second day of training camp last year put the former Litchfield star athlete and promising NFL tight end on the sidelines for more than a month and he was never able to fully establish a place for himself in a Vikings offense already struggling to move the ball if Adrian Peterson didn’t have it in his hands.

The John Carlson who averaged 46 catches per year and amassed more than 1,500 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in his three full seasons with the Seahawks finished 2012 with 8 catches for 46 yards and never held the ball in the end zone. His season highlight was a 3-catch, 17-yard performance against St. Louis in December.

“It was frustrating on many levels,” said Carlson, who begins his second training camp with the Vikings on Thursday in Mankato. “Some injuries you can control and some you can’t. I got rolled up on in practice and hurt my knee and there’s nothing you can do about it. It definitely set me back. You have to be out there and show that you can consistently perform and be an asset to the team. I wasn’t on the field. I was on the side.”

It’s been a maddening, injury-plagued two-plus years for the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Carlson, who suffered a shoulder injury just two preseason games into the 2011 season with the Seahawks and missed the entire regular season recovering from surgery. That came after his 2010 season ended when he suffered a concussion in the Seahawks’ playoff loss to the Chicago Bears.

To get ready for this season, Carlson continued his workouts with Shawn Myszka of Edina-based Explosive Edge Athletics. Myszka tailors workouts to the individual player and the position played, Carlson said.

“It’s been good,” he said. “My goal this season was to get healthy and work hard to be more durable.”

The future looked bright when Carlson signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the team he watched growing up in March 2012, after the 2008 National Football League draft pick out of Notre Dame played three solid seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.

Carlson came to training camp with the Vikings as one of the team’s key offseason acquisitions, fully healed from the shoulder injury that wiped out his 2011 season and ready to line up opposite fellow Fighting Irish tight end Kyle Rudolph in the starting lineup.

The MCL knee injury didn’t require surgery but did take five to six weeks to heal, Carlson said.

“Missing that time on the field was not ideal,” he said. “I missed all of training camp and I really wasn’t able to earn a role in the offense. That’s just kind of how football works. When a guy is not out there because of an injury, they’re going to fill that spot with someone. They don’t sit around and wait.”

Making the transition wasn’t going to be easy, injury or no injury.

The Vikings, with second-year quarterback Christian Ponder tabbed as the full-time starter, would finish 2012 ranked 31st among the NFL’s 32 teams in passing offense. Running back Adrian Peterson accounted for 43 percent of the team’s total yards. Carlson played in 15 of the team’s 17 games and started six, but the numbers clearly show a fit hadn’t been found.

Carlson saw progress when the offseason began. He took part in all the team’s offseason workouts and, in April, he settled in with his family – his wife of five years, Danielle, and their children, William, who will be 3 in October, and Katelyn, who celebrated her first birthday last week – in a new home in Deephaven.

“You feel like you can unpack a little bit,” Carlson said.

During the team’s nine weeks of Organized Team Activities, Carlson finally felt a level of comfort he had never experienced.

“This will be my sixth year in the NFL and it’s the first time in my career that I’ll be in the same offense two years in a row,” Carlson said.

He likes what he’s seen from Ponder, who he said is the victim of outsized expectations. Carlson played with Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle, a quarterback that took time to blossom. He also points to the advantages Aaron Rodgers had being a backup to Brett Favre.

“It’s funny to me, in the NFL, people expect these rookies to come in and be Peyton Manning and Tom Brady,” Carlson said. “Some step in at that elite level right away but most don’t. (Ponder’s) a talented guy who works very hard and I’m excited to see what he’s able to do this year.”

Carlson said he’s also excited by the offseason acquisition of Greg Jennings and the progress of young receivers such as Jarius Wright. And then there’s Rudolph, who has put up Carlson-esque numbers in his first two seasons – 79 catches, 742 yards, 12 TDs – and was this year’s Pro Bowl MVP.

 “It was really cool to go into OTAs knowing the offense and being able to get into things more in-depth with the quarterbacks on the field and in the classroom,” Carlson said. “You have a better understanding. We’re not where we want to be yet but I felt like we took a couple of steps forward and I think we’ll take more in training camp.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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