Rookie receiver Stefon Diggs seeks to make mark with Vikings [Star Tribune]

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You know, a lacerated kidney sounds pretty awful.

Well, not at first.

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“At first, you know how you get a little bruise?” said Stefon Diggs, Vikings rookie receiver, lifelong fanatical football lover and former University of Maryland lacerated kidney victim. “I felt it a little bit. I came out for a play. Everybody said, ‘We need you.’ I said, ‘I got you.’ I went back in.”

Diggs caught a team-high six passes that day at Penn State, including the particularly painful fourth-quarter grab that set up a go-ahead touchdown.

“It was on the goal line and I was trying to stretch the ball out,” Diggs said. “A linebacker hit me on the side and it was a little helicopter thing where I spun and ended up on like the half-inch line.”

Diggs stayed down and was tended to by Maryland’s medical team for several minutes. But he walked off the field on his own. Soon, he was back helping the Terrapins to a 20-19 win against a Nittany Lions team that had never lost at home to Maryland and was 35-1-1 vs. the alleged nearby rival entering that game.

Meanwhile, that little so-called bruise on Diggs’ left side wouldn’t stop hurting. When Mother Nature called and Diggs headed for the restroom in the visitor’s locker room, well, let’s just say that’s where a lacerated kidney starts to sound pretty awful.

“When you lacerate your kidney, you’re bleeding out of your kidney,” Diggs said. “I went to the bathroom and that’s when I saw it.”

It?

“Straight blood,” Diggs said. “I ran into the training room and was like, ‘Something is wrong!’ I was scared for a second. But that wasn’t the worst part.”

There’s a part that’s worse?

“I didn’t go straight to the hospital,” Diggs said. “I had to ride the bus back from Penn State to Maryland [about 3½ hours]. I was lying in the aisle on the bus. When the bus ride was over, I said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. I need to go to the hospital.’ ”

Fifty-nine days later, Diggs returned to get season highs for catches (10) and receiving yards (138) against Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

“Being away from the game took a toll on my heart,” Diggs said. “Being away from the game you love so much, it will mess with your mind.”

Ready-made receiver

Diggs obviously was being kind and respectful of Vikings history when asked if he had ever heard of a receiver by the name of Jim Brim.

“Sounds familiar,” he said.

Yeah, right.

On Oct. 4, 1987, Brim caught six passes in a loss to the Packers. Technically, Brim was a rookie making his NFL debut. In reality, he was a replacement player whose NFL career started and ended with the three replacement games during the 1987 strike season.

Until Oct. 4 of this year, when Diggs caught six passes in a 23-20 loss at Denver, Brim and one other player shared the team record for most catches by a rookie in his NFL debut. (For the record, Randy Moss caught only four passes in his debut, although two of them were touchdowns.) The other guy who caught six: a running back named Chuck Foreman (1973).

“I definitely know that guy,” Diggs said. “What a blessing, really.”

Despite a head-turning preseason, Diggs was considered the sixth receiver on a team with six receivers. That changed at Denver when injuries to Charles Johnson and Jarius Wright thrust Diggs into active gameday duty for the first time.

He responded by immediately gaining quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s attention and confidence. Diggs had a team-high 87 yards receiving and was targeted as many times (10) as seven-year veteran Mike Wallace, who was in his 103rd NFL game.

“The thing you like about Stefon is the big catch radius that he has,” Bridgewater said. “He has big, strong hands, he can go up and make tough catches for you. And he’s a guy who knows when he’s in the game what we expect of him.”

Denver also was a “Yeah, but …” game for Diggs. As in, “Yeah, but he fumbled twice.” Diggs recovered both fumbles, but coach Mike Zimmer, Bridgewater, Wallace and several other teammates have made it a point of emphasis this week to keep the rookie grounded and focused on those fumbles.

“All that was on my mind after that game was how many times I lost the ball,” Diggs said. “It’s my bad. I need to prepare even better than I’m trying to now. When you have the ball in your hand, you’re the most important guy in the whole organization.”

Don’t compare CP84, but …

There’s a training camp video on vikings.com in which Diggs was miked up. The 6-foot, 191-pounder was standing next to the 6-2, 220-pound Cordarrelle Patterson off to the side when a pass was thrown toward an unsuspecting Patterson.

The football would have delivered great pain to a sensitive area of Patterson’s anatomy had Diggs not reached over and tried to catch it one-handed. Diggs dropped the ball but pointed at Patterson and said, “That’s 200!”

What’s up with that?

“The receivers do a thing where we count any drops you had or things like that,” Diggs said. “You just rack them up and keep them in your memory bank and at the end of the day, whoever has the highest number of points, they’re out. A dropped ball is 200 points, but when I dropped it, I said, ‘That’s 200 on you’ because I saved him.”

Diggs wasn’t the only backup receiver who could have jump-started his career in Denver because of injuries further up the depth chart. Patterson was healthy and has been virtually invisible on offense since losing his starting job to Johnson last season.

Patterson was the 29th overall draft pick in 2013. Diggs was a fifth-rounder, the 146th overall selection and the 20th receiver taken this year. Yet Diggs is the more polished.

Patterson has played 33 offensive snaps in four games, including 17 against Denver. He has been targeted twice with two catches for 10 yards, including one for 9 yards at Denver. Diggs played 42 snaps against the Broncos, a sign that it could be Patterson who is inactive the next time the team has six healthy receivers and needs only five on gameday.

To help understand the differences between Diggs and Patterson in terms of their development as NFL receivers, let’s turn to Vikings receivers coach George Stewart.

“Stefon is a young man who was coached extremely well in college by [Maryland receivers coach] Keenan McCardell,” Stewart said. “Keenan was a pro in this league for 17 years. When you leave college having been taught by a guy who has played receiver in this game at the highest level, you’re going to learn a lot.

“I think Rick Spielman and Coach Zimmer did a great job of going through the weeds and picking this guy in the fifth round. That was a steal for us in the fifth round.”

Durability concerns?

Come to think of it, a broken tibula doesn’t sound all that pleasant either.

“That was against Wake Forest [in 2013],” Diggs said. “I caught the ball on third down and went to go vertical right now, but the defender pulled me down from the back when my leg was stuck in the ground.”

Athletic trainers tried to help him off the field at first. Diggs shooed them away.

“But when I went to walk, I put my weight down and I felt all the cracking,” he said. “And I said, ‘Grab me. Please, please grab me!’ ”

Diggs missed six games but said he came back faster than ever in 2014. And this is a guy who had two kick return touchdowns and 1,896 all-purpose yards — second-most in school history — as a freshman.

“A lot of him being able to step in right away and help has to do with his attention to detail,” Stewart said. “His work ethic. His ability to understand concepts. Teddy has a good feel for him. Stefon is one of those kids who, I don’t want to say gym rat, but he loves football. He loves learning. He’s a sponge and he does a great job with the skills he has.”

Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Norv Turner complimented Diggs on his route running and for being “very sharp mentally” in the Denver game.

“He’s very good at attacking the ball,” Turner said. “And catching the ball in tight areas.”

Diggs also is able to joke a year later that “no bump or bruise or little lacerated kidney is going to take me out of the game.”

Of course, there is one regret about the painful play that spread so much unhappiness among the 103,969 fans at Happy Valley a year ago.

“I didn’t score,” Diggs said. “When they make the movie, in a great ending, I’ll score.”

http://www.startribune.com/rookie-receiver-stefon-diggs-seeks-to-make-mark-with-vikings/333713411/

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