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In MyCole Pruitt, Vikings see echoes of past success

MINNEAPOLIS -- In reality, whatever chance MyCole Pruitt had at long-term basketball success hit a dead end. He was the biggest player on his team at Kirkwood High School (just outside of St. Louis), but at just 6-foot-2, Pruitt wasn't going to pique anyone's interest as a low-post player in college.

"That obviously wasn't going to work out," Pruitt said with a laugh after the first day of the Vikings' rookie camp on Friday. "I was just muscling people down there."

Football? That was just something Pruitt started doing as a freshman in high school to get out of the house. He was too raw at that point to harbor any big dreams. He certainly wasn't envisioning himself landing where he is now, as a rookie in the Minnesota Vikings' offense that Norv Turner all but demanded to have. But as Pruitt grew to love football, he also got a lot better at it. And after an impressive senior season at Kirkwood led to a prolific career at Southern Illinois, Pruitt could be next in a long line of Turner tight ends whose hoops heritage comes in handy.

The Vikings are trying not to put any premature expectations on the fifth-round pick, who was named a two-time first-team FCS All-American and led all Division I tight ends in catches (81), yards (861) and touchdowns (13) in 2014. It says plenty, though, that the offensive coordinator who worked with Antonio Gates and helped mold Jordan Cameron thought he could get something big out of Pruitt.

"He sees guys that remind him of guys in the past," coach Mike Zimmer said of Turner. "Norv was pretty adamant throughout the draft about, this is a guy that we’re really intrigued with. He runs 4.5 [second 40-yard dash], has a chance to be a good tight end, and it’s really important for the tight ends in our offense, as you know. He had a lot of say on that one."

Vikings tight ends coach Kevin Stefanski met with Pruitt at the NFL scouting combine in February and had brief conversations with Pruitt later in the spring. In that first interview in Indianapolis, however, Pruitt's intelligence stuck out.

"When you're versatile, they want to move you all around the formation," Stefanski said. "That's easier said than done. He was playing a couple different positions for them. It's evident on film, and then you talk to him. He knows what he's talking about."

Pruitt has been compared to the Buffalo Bills' Charles Clay, who shifted from fullback to tight end and caught 127 passes for the Miami Dolphins the past two years. But it's Gates, who might be the gold standard of Turner tight ends, that Pruitt fixated on when he was growing up. Gates' path from basketball to football is more well-known -- he played both sports at Kent State -- but Pruitt hopes he can use the future Hall of Famer as something of a template.

"He's a guy that I'd love to model my game after," Pruitt said. "He's not too much of a blazer, but he always finds a way to get open. That's one of the things I like to have in my game -- just whatever way I can, find a way to get open, and make that catch, whether it be a tough catch in traffic or being wide open and making a play after [the catch]."

Said Stefanski: "The ability to go up for a rebound, the ability to turn over either shoulder and score with either hand -- there's an innate thing there that shows up with some of the good tight ends that have a basketball background. And then, just the [savvy] to get open. Everybody uses Gates and Tony Gonzalez as an example, and that's all true, but they have a unique ability with foot speed and quickness to just wiggle open."

Pruitt will have to improve as a blocker in the NFL, and it could take him some time to carve out a niche on a team that already has an established tight end in Kyle Rudolph. But the Vikings saw something in Pruitt that reminded them of Turner's previous greats, and they're hoping they have something special in the 23-year old.

"[Turner is] on me pretty hard, just because he does see that potential," Pruitt said. "I'd rather him be on me hard, and show that he cares like that. I feel like it's helped me a lot."