MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - Tarvaris Jackson spent the first morning of Minnesota's training camp with his red jersey half-rolled up underneath his shoulder pads, partially hiding the No. 7 on the front.
He wasn't fooling anybody. If there's one player on the Vikings roster who can't conceal his identity, it's Jackson.
After his somewhat surprising selection in the second round of last season's draft out of Division I-AA Alabama State, he made two mostly unsuccessful starts in ultimately meaningless games at the end of his rookie year. Brad Johnson was released over the winter, and - as fast as one can spell inexperience - the 24-year-old Jackson was suddenly the leading candidate to take over the most important position on the field.
"I'm ready, and I'm looking forward each day to get even more ready," Jackson said, following the team's first full-contact practice of the season.
His ability to thrive on the job is one of many mysteries surrounding this team, but it's quite clear that the kid can at least chuck it down the field.
"Just the balls that he throws, veteran players that I've played with haven't been able to throw that far," said receiver Bobby Wade, who signed with Minnesota as a free agent this year after spending the last four seasons with Chicago and Tennessee.
Fans grew frustrated and bored while the Vikings stumbled to a 6-10 record in coach Brad Childress' first year, and one of the few reasons they showed up to watch the season finale on a snowy New Year's Eve was to see Jackson's first start at the Metrodome.
Though certainly still raw with plenty to learn, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Jackson possesses a rare blend of a strong arm and fast feet. He has found the balance between humility and confidence that coaches and teammates often appreciate, too.
But Minnesota set franchise records for fewest first downs (272) and passing touchdowns (13) last year, and rookie running back Adrian Peterson was the only high-profile addition to that weak offense. And while the assumed starting quarterback has begun only two games in his career, it's only natural that national expectations for the Vikings are as low as they've been in a long time.
Jackson can't do anything to soften the skepticism until September, so he hasn't been trying to do that. There's much more to worry about right now, like that West Coast offense Childress has installed.
"Guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, they've got guys that aren't big Peyton Manning fans and Tom Brady fans," Jackson said. "It really doesn't matter what everybody says. I just want to get out here and just prove to myself and my teammates and my coaches that I can win football games. That's it."
To be fair, Brooks Bollinger is competing for this spot, too. Childress recruited him at the University of Wisconsin and encouraged the team to acquire him last August in a trade with New York, so he clearly has faith in Bollinger, too - enough to keep Minnesota from pursuing another veteran during the offseason. Bollinger has only nine career starts, however, all with the Jets in 2005.
"Whatever happens at the end of the day happens," Bollinger said. "Through all that, I think we all help each other, and we're all fighting for the same cause."
Playing quarterback in the NFL requires so much more than speed and strength, obviously, so Jackson's ability to grasp those subtleties of the game like recognizing blitzes and reading downfield coverage will go a long way toward his success in 2007 - assuming he wins the job. Jackson worked with the first team on Friday, but Childress said both players would have that opportunity during camp.
Consistency will be most critical for Jackson throughout the next month - following a well-timed throw to the right receiver with three more good ones and not a wobbler to the free safety.
That's how he will have to perform to build the Vikings' belief in their young leader, as he bluntly pointed out.
"Have the guys believe in me that, 'OK, we're going to win this game.' Not, 'I don't know what this young guy is going to do' or whatever," Jackson said. "I just want the guys to believe in me."