McKinnie practices, could play at San Diego

Updated: November 6, 2003, 8:08 PM ET

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Left tackle Bryant McKinnie could be back in the Minnesota Vikings' lineup sooner than expected.

McKinnie practiced on Thursday for the first time since spraining his left ankle last weekend and could play Sunday at San Diego. McKinnie sustained the injury in the first quarter and reaggravated it before halftime.

He's listed as questionable on the injury report, meaning there's a 50 percent chance he could play against the Chargers. Earlier this week, Tice said McKinnie's status for the game didn't look good.

On Thursday, McKinnie did some light work at practice and Tice said he would do more on Friday.

If McKinnie plays, Tice said he would suit up an extra lineman just in case he reaggravates the injury.

Veteran Everett Lindsay would take McKinnie's spot if he can't play.

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^S.O.D's KRs:@ Rookie running back Onterrio Smith will continue his duties as the primary kick returner for the Vikings -- for now anyway.

Against the Packers, Smith returned seven kicks for 136 yards. He averaged 19.4 yards a return; his longest was for 34 yards.

"He ran hard," Tice said.

Smith, the Vikings' fourth-round draft pick from Oregon, still figures to get some carries on offense, but his load will lessen as Michael Bennett continues to return to form after recovering from foot surgery. Once Bennett becomes the full-time starter, Moe Williams will likely return to his role as Minnesota's third-down back.

That will leave less room for Smith.

"We've only got one ball," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said.

Smith -- the self-proclaimed "steal of the draft" -- has 50 carries for 217 yards and two TDs this season. Tice said Smith has been very receptive to the new role.

"I think he's excited to be back there," he said.

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^PROVING THEIR WORTH:@ Coming into the season, punter Eddie Johnson and kicker Aaron Elling might as well have had giant question marks slapped on their foreheads. Neither player had any regular-season NFL experience.

But midway through the season, both have proved themselves as capable players.

Johnson, the Vikings' sixth-round draft pick, is averaging 40.3 yards per punt; Elling is 10-for-13 on field goals (his misses are from 37, 53 and 54 yards) and perfect on 25 extra point attempts.

Both have had their best performances over the last couple of weeks.

Elling hit a career-long 51-yard field goal against the New York Giants. And Johnson tied a season high by pinning two punts inside the 20-yard line against Green Bay.

"I think our two young kickers have found a groove," Tice said.

Elling resumed his kickoff duties against Green Bay after suffering back spasms the previous two weeks.

"I felt a little rusty on kickoffs," Elling said. "Contact was good but I've just got to hit it a little deeper."

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^LESS IS BETTER:@ Tice has scaled back practices this week in an effort to keep his players fresh. In addition to shorter sessions, the players have worn only shoulder pads, helmets and shorts.

Tice has also taken a few plays out of his game plan.

"I think right now less is better," he said. "Earlier in the week, I talked about we've got to play fast, and I think our plans are going to allow us to play fast."

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^EXTRA POINTS:@ Tice said CB Denard Walker, who will be replaced by Ken Irvin in the starting lineup on Sunday, got an interception in the nickel package in Thursday's practice. "He looks like he's accepted the challenge, and that's a good sign." ... USA Today ranked the Vikings as the league's sixth-best team at the midpoint of the season. Kansas City, Indianapolis, New England, Tennessee and Seattle were the top five.

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index