Vikings, Titans joint practices mean reunion for 3 former Gophers stars

The Minnesota Vikings are hosting the Tennessee Titans for joint practices this week at TCO Performance Center, which means a reunion for three former University of Minnesota football standouts.

Esezi Otomewo is in his second season with the Vikings and battling for a roster spot on the defensive line. Thomas Rush is a rookie undrafted free agent trying to find his way with the Titans. Jack Gibbens is in his second season with the Titans, and is competing for a starting role on the defense.

All three were on the practice field in Eagan catching up on Wednesday, long after the practice had ended. They’re three of several former Gophers under PJ Fleck trying to make it in the NFL. Fleck has had 16 players drafted since he was hired to take over Minnesota’s program.

"It's good to see some guys up here. We were just talking, we’ve got a lot of guys off that team that are in the league right now," Gibbens said. "Got to see T-Time (Terell Smith) last week, going to see J-How (Jordan Howden) Week 1, guys all around. Good to see guys having success."

Smith was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fifth round, and Howden was a fifth-round pick by the New Orleans Saints.

Gibbens, a star linebacker for the Gophers two seasons ago after transferring in from Abilene Christian, did not make Tennessee’s 53-man roster out of training camp last season. He stayed in shape and kept working, and the Titans gave him a shot ahead of Week 12 last season.

Gibbens ended up playing in the last five games, got two starts and finished with 28 total tackles and one interception.

"It was super up and down, all over the place kind of waiting on an opportunity. Finally got one at the end of the year, felt like I was able to kind of stay ready throughout the year and make the most of it," Gibbens said. "Now getting more opportunity this camp. It went well."

When Tennessee’s first-team defense took the field Tuesday for team situations, Gibbens was on the field at middle linebacker. Not only does he have a chance to make the roster, he’s competing for a starting role.

He’s playing alongside Arden Key, Azeez Al-Shaair and Harold Landry III.

"Just trying to make the most of the opportunity, got one in camp right now to compete for a spot. So just trying to stack days on top of each other, not really think too much about everything else that’s going on," Gibbens said. "Just trying to play the best ball that I can and see where it ends up at the end."

Day two of practices is Thursday, and we’ll see how many snaps Gibbens gets Saturday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. Gibbens was asked how playing for Fleck helped him get ready for the NFL. He said Fleck told him to be himself.

"I love that program, I feel like they prepare you for football, life, everything. I feel like the biggest thing is when I first got to Minnesota, Coach Fleck just told me to go be you. You don’t need to be something else, just play your game and be the type of leader you are," Gibbens said. "That’s something that I’ve tried to carry over, because everybody plays differently. I got a different style than all the other guys in our room, so just trying to play to my strengths, play my game and I feel like that’s something that’s helped me out a lot."