MINNEAPOLIS — Ryan Quigley favored basketball growing up in South Carolina and rarely watched NFL games. Taylor Symmank once envisioned himself as a wide receiver and was solely a place kicker until arriving at college.
Punting eventually became their primary athletic focus, their skill professional caliber. Now they’re locked in a close competition for the job with the Minnesota Vikings, where this less-than-glamorous job is anything but an afterthought.
“It’s very important,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Special teams, we have to do a better job.”
The Vikings are also evaluating two kickers and sorting through several options for kickoff returners, the most unsettled training camp they’ve had for specialists in years. The punter will be equally important on a team that has been largely reliant on field position and sound defense in the first three seasons under Zimmer.
Turnover at these positions with the Vikings has been rare, with eight years of Chris Kluwe and four seasons of Jeff Locke preceding the winner of the Quigley-Symmank audition. With Locke last year, the Vikings were 30th in the league with a gross average of 42.6 yards per punt and 28th with a net average of 39.8 yards per punt, so they let his contract expire. He signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
So the Vikings brought in Quigley, who has 51 games of NFL experience, mostly with the New York Jets and briefly last season with the Arizona Cardinals. They also brought back Symmank, who had a tryout at rookie minicamp in 2016 after finishing his career at Texas Tech as the career leader in gross punting average.
Quigley has shown more ability to consistently hit directional targets, per the team’s preference in attempt to set up their coverage unit. Symmank has displayed the stronger leg during camp. Hang time is more important, though, than overall distance.
“You’d like to have the guy with the leg, but if he’s outkicking the coverage with a big bomb, it’s not any good,” Zimmer said.
They’re both on track to be the holder, too, though backup quarterback Case Keenum and wide receiver Adam Thielen are also capable of the role if necessary.
Symmank was a soccer player and a place kicker from the Dallas area when he arrived at Southern Arkansas and added punting to his repertoire. He transferred to Texas Tech and won the job there, too.
Quigley’s father was a basketball coach, and his mother was against him playing football because of the injury risk. Then came one of his eighth-grade teachers who recognized his leg strength and taught him how to punt, providing the gateway to the gridiron. The three-sport standout at North Myrtle Beach High School, which recently retired his jersey, went on to Boston College. Then he landed the job with the Jets in 2013.
“He’s a great guy, just real down to earth. So it’s cool to learn from him a lot of things, just to focus on what I need to focus on and take from his game what I need to put to mine,” Symmank said.
That’s where the separation could come: prior knowledge.
“You know what the feelings are. I’ve experienced probably every type of punt you can hit. The good, the bad, the ugly,” Quigley said. “So when you know that, you kind of go out there and you’re free. That’s the kind of feeling I have right now.”
Zimmer and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will have three more preseason games in which to evaluate them, starting Friday night at Seattle against the Seahawks. Last week at Buffalo, both punters had satisfactory performances, save for a 31-yard shank by Symmank.
“The competition has been great,” Priefer said. “They’ve handled it like pros.”