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Vikings hopeful Colter looks to catch on as punt returner

MANKATO, Minn. — When Kain Colter showed up for a rookie minicamp in May, he never had caught a punt in his life.

Not in pee-wee ball. Not in high school. Not at Northwestern, where he had played quarterback and some wide receiver.

 “Never,” Colter said. “I always played quarterback, and they never were going to put me back there.”

Now, Colter is trying to learn the craft, and it could play a major role in whether he makes the Vikings as an undrafted rookie free-agent signee.

Colter’s quarterback days are behind him as he has switched to wide receiver in his bid to make the NFL. He’s also trying to catch the eyes of coaches in training camp with his play on special teams.

 “I think all special teams right now will be the key, but I think punt returner is probably my best special teams thing that I’m doing now,” he said. “So I think that will definitely help. I’m definitely improving, but I still have a long way to go.”

The 6-foot, 195-pound Colter was an impressive runner at Northwestern, either when lining up as quarterback or hauling in passes. But learning how to catch a punt has been his biggest NFL challenge so far.

He looked pretty good initially when catching balls from the Jugs machine, which simulated the spin off a right-footed punter. But he struggled a bit early this week when he began trying to haul in live balls from left-footed Vikings punter Jeff Locke.

 “We had a few windy days, and it was challenging,” Colter said. “But that’s no excuse. You’ve still got to go out there and focus and catch it.”

Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Colter had made a “tremendous amount of progress,” and Locke said he never would have guessed Colter never had returned a punt before last spring.

 “I’m very surprised hearing that,” Locke said. “He’s doing all right.”

The Vikings have the NFL’s leading punt returner from last season in cornerback Marcus Sherels, who averaged 15.2 yards a return. But there could be a spot open for a guy who could serve as Sherels’ backup while boosting depth at receiver.

Colter might now be best known for spearheading an effort by Northwestern players to form a union. Prior to that, he was a part-time starter at quarterback who completed 223 of 322 career passes (an impressive completion percentage of 69.3) and ran for 2,180 yards.

Most of Colter’s time at wide receiver was in 2012, when he caught 43 of his 63 career passes. He has been trying to pick up some of the finer points of that position.

 “He has a lot of work to do to learn how to play receiver,” Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “But, if he doesn’t make it, it’s not (for) lack of effort. He is working; he is studying. It’s a big transition to go from quarterback to receiver.”

It’s perhaps a bigger one learning from scratch to become a punt returner, but Colter said he has inspiration.

Atwaan Randle El, another Big Ten quarterback, became a solid punt returner while playing in the NFL with Pittsburgh and Washington from 2002-10.

 “I always kind of looked up to Randle El, and I’m hoping that I could do something similar to him,” Colter said.