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Zylstra tries to catch on with Vikings

September 1, 2018
Vikings rookie wide receiver Brandon Zylstra (15) works out during training camp at TCO Performance Center in Eagan. Zylstra, a Minnesota native, is trying to make the team after playing two seasons in the CFL.

Brandon Zylstra is trying to work hard to make his dream come true, but injuries have been frustrating for the Minnesota Vikings rookie wide receiver.

After two standout seasons in the Canadian Football League, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Zylstra signed with the Vikings and now hopes to make his mark in the NFL.

Joining the Vikings as a free agent seemed like an easy decision for Zylstra. He grew up in Minnesota and was a Vikings fan. He attended New London-Spicer High School and then went on to have a stellar college career at Concordia-Moorhead.

Despite playing college ball at the Division II level, Zylstra never doubted his ability and always had big dreams.

“If you want to do something, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t,” Zylstra said. “Just keep working really hard.”

That’s what he did for two seasons in the CFL with the Edmonton Eskimos. He led the CFL in receiving yards in 2017 with 1,687 while catching 100 passes. When he was in Edmonton, his position coach was Elgin’s Carson Walch.

“He’s one of the greatest coaches that I’ve ever had,” Zylstra said. “He’s just somebody who really paid attention to all the little details and was very critical about everything and that’s what I felt helped separate myself up there. I still have a great relationship with him and I still talk to him. We just kind of check in and see how each other is doing.”

Walch is now in the NFL, too, as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. Walch thinks Zylstra has the makings of being a solid NFL receiver. “I have no doubt he will be a great player for the Minnesota Vikings this year and the years to come,” Walch said. “He is a class act.”

Zylstra was looking very good at the start of training camp at the team’s new facility in Eagan.

“Everything’s been going good and I’m excited,” he said early in camp. “It’s cool to walk into something like this (the new facility) right away.”

Zylstra flashed some early promise with two highlight-reel catches during a team scrimmage. But then he suffered a hamstring injury and missed the first two preseason games. He has been frustrated by the injury, but hopes he still has enough time to show the coaches what he can do.

“It’s definitely a very competitive battle,” he said. “But I believe in myself and I like what’s going on around here.”

After spending time in the CFL, Zylstra has had to get used to the upgraded talent level in the NFL.

“Everything’s just a step up here,” Zylstra said. “I don’t have anything bad to say about the CFL, I loved my time there. But everything here is just ramped up a little bit more.”

Aside from the skills of NFL players, Zylstra had to make other adjustments after playing in Canada. The CFL has a wider and longer field, uses 12 players instead of 11, and offensive players can be in motion at the snap of the ball. Plus the game is more wide open since offenses only get three plays to advance 10 yards for a first down instead of four.

“Honestly it took probably that first day or two just coming back out here,” Zylstra said. “It took me a second to get the dimensions of the field back just because it is so much bigger up there and you have so much more space to move around. And all of your routes are a little bit different just because there is so much more space. But this is the same game that I’ve been playing since I was young, so it came back pretty quick.”

Zylstra has been compared to current Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen. Both players grew up in Minnesota and played Division II college ball. Thielen has been quick to offer Zylstra advise as well.

“He’s great and he’s a great leader out there,” Zylstra said. “He’s someone that really takes pride in what he does and I kind of feed off of that.”

Thielen, who was named to the Pro Bowl last season, first earned a spot on the Vikings by making his mark on special teams. Zylstra might have to take the same route.

“Absolutely, especially for any kind of rookie coming in,” he said. “That’s kind of how you make the team is on special teams so I’m just trying to get involved with them as much as I can.”

Zylstra has the drive to do whatever it takes to earn a spot with the Vikings. But at some point he hopes to be much more than just a special teams player.

“Brandon will be the first to tell you that he has lofty goals,” Walch said. “His work ethic and knowledge for the game will lead him on his path to success.”

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