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Vikings want Ihmir Smith-Marsette to win the punt return job. Is he ready for it?

It helped that the Vikings hosted joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers this week at TCO Performance Center in Eagan. That provided Smith-Marsette a valuable opportunity to go against 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky in real time.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Las Vegas Raiders
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette against the Las Vegas Raiders during a preseason game Aug. 14, 2022, at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada.
Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today Sports
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EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette admitted he was a little shocked by how far Raiders punter A.J. Cole boomed the ball in last Sunday’s preseason opener in Las Vegas.

As the No. 1 punt returner on the depth chart, Smith-Marsette was hoping to make a big play to prove to special-teams coordinator Matt Daniels that he deserves the job.

Instead, Smith-Marsette misjudged the punt in the air, then compounded his mistake by muffing it. Luckily for him, he managed to recover the ball to limit the damage.

“They are giving me the opportunity to go out there and showcase my skills,” Smith-Marsette said. “I feel like as the punt returner last week going against the Raiders, that was something I didn’t take advantage of like I was supposed to.”

These types of growing pains are to be expected from a young player learning the intricacies of being a punt returner at the highest level. Just because longtime Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels made it look so easy doesn’t mean it actually is.

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Maybe the hardest part of learning the position is the fact that live reps are so limited in practice. Looking at Smith-Marsette, for example, he’s getting his practice in by catching sky balls shot out of the JUGS machine.

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“You look at the JUGS machine and it’s pretty much going to come out the same way no matter what,” Smith-Marsette said. “You can judge that right way. It’s way different coming off the foot. You’ve got to read a few more things. Especially with different punters doing different things.”

It helped that the Vikings hosted joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers this week at TCO Performance Center in Eagan. That provided Smith-Marsette a valuable opportunity to go against 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky in real time.

“He turns one way and then kicks back across his body,” Smith-Marsette said. “Just getting a beat on him in practice will help during the game.”

It will be interesting to see how Smith-Marsette fares in Saturday’s exhibition game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Theoretically, he should perform much better after getting a handful of live punts in practice.

“He’s starting to get a lot more confident back there,” Daniels said. “Hopefully we’re able to get him a lot more opportunities. It’s my job from a schematic standpoint to try to create that.”

The biggest thing Daniels wants to see from Smith-Marsette is his ability to make decisions when things are going 100 mph around him. Is he tracking the ball off the punter’s foot? Is he comfortable catching it? Is he making a decisive first cut?

“I see a guy in Ihmir who’s really starting to grow into the role and who’s really starting to accept it,” Daniels said. “I think he really wants to be great. You can see that. He’s coming out early for punts before practice. It’s really encouraging to see.”

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As for what Smith-Marsette thinks separates him from the other potential punt returners on the roster?

“Anytime I touch the ball, I feel like I can go to the house,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing I bring. Anytime I touch it, it could be a touchdown.”

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