MANKATO — Tight end John Carlson cut sharply at the goal line, grabbing the football away from safety Harrison Smith. A couple plays later, Carlson hauled in an arcing pass, getting both feet down before linebacker Audie Cole pushed him out of the end zone.
It's a small sample of what Carlson accomplished during a recent practice. It's what he had planned for last season, when he was a high-priced free agent returning to Minnesota to continue his career.
But injuries kept Carlson, who was a three-sport standout in Litchfield, from having much of an impact with the Minnesota Vikings.
"It was a disappointing start, but that was last year," Carlson said. "I'm focused on what I can do now and try to improve every day."
Carlson is healthy so far, and if the first 10 days of camp are any indication, the Vikings' offense puts a lot of emphasis on tight ends Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison and Carlson.
"In this offense, the tight ends are asked to do a lot," Carlson said. "It's a good group, very versatile."
In three seasons with Seattle, he made 141 catches with 15 touchdowns before missing the 2011 season with a shoulder injury. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Vikings and was eager to perform in front of many friends and family members.
But a couple days into training camp, he suffered a sprained knee, which sidelined him for the rest of the preseason, limiting his ability to build chemistry with quarterback Christian Ponder and other teammates and gain the trust of coaches. Carlson played in 14 games, and made only eight receptions as he was bothered by a late-season concussion.
"When you’re a new guy and you get injured as early as he did and you’re trying to develop the timing in between the quarterback and also time to develop a rapport, your teammates, offensive coordinator, no question it set John back a year ago," Frazier said.
During this camp, Carlson said he still gets many family members and friends coming to watch, and it's important that he make more of a contribution.
"Coming off the injury (at Seattle), I know he was frustrated," said Rudolph, who was friends with Carlson back at Notre Dame. "He was looking for a fresh start, and it seems likes every time he started to show what he could do, something happened to knock him back."
The Vikings have shown several multi-tight end formations, trying to take advantage of the size and strength of the threesome, who are asked to catch, block and protect. Carlson is a little smaller than the other two, though he put on weight during the offseason, but he's more agile, complementing the other options quite well in the short passing game.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said that Carlson's athleticism allows him to line up wide, disguising a two-receiver set with a three tight end formation. He's also being used as an H-back.
Carlson is eager to contribute in any way, just as he was at this point last summer. Now fully healthy, Carlson could surprise those who were underwhelmed by his first season in Purple.
"I worked hard to prepare for this," Carlson said. "It's a work in progress, but I'm trying to do what I can do, whether it's make a catch or make a block that springs a big run."