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Young Vikings backs get their chance

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) - At the start of training camp, the Minnesota Vikings' backfield was touted as the deepest in years. Now's the time to prove it.

Michael Bennett is injured. Onterrio Smith is suspended. And veteran Moe Williams is iffy with an ankle problem. That leaves rookie Mewelde Moore and first-year man Larry Ned to lead the backfield Sunday when the Vikings play at Houston.

Earlier this year, other teams reportedly showed interest in trading for one of Mike Tice's running backs, but the coach wasn't willing to part with any of them. He's feeling good about that decision now.

"We were not willing to trade any running backs for obvious reasons," Tice said Wednesday. "You're only one injury away from being short."

Asked if he would look at bringing in any more, Tice flatly said, "I have plenty of backs."

Bennett, a Pro Bowl running back in 2002, was expected back this week after spraining his right knee in the preseason. But he reinjured the knee last week during practice and could miss another four weeks.

Then there's Smith, a very capable replacement for Bennett who officially was suspended this week for four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He won't be eligible to return until Nov. 8 at Indianapolis.

Williams is a savvy veteran who led the team with 745 yards rushing and had five touchdowns last year. But he's been limited by a sprained ankle and is questionable for Sunday. Tice said Williams wouldn't practice much this week.

"Moe will definitely suit up in the game," Tice said. "What his role will be will be determined by how he feels on Friday."

Moore, Minnesota's fourth-round draft pick out of Tulane, likely will start against the Texans.

"I've been in the flow," he said. "I've been watching and paying attention. I'll just go out there and apply my game."

So far, Moore has been used mainly as a kick returner. He's returned seven kickoffs for 140 yards and caught two passes for 14. But he's had only one carry this season, an 8-yard gain in the opener against Dallas.

And that's still more action than Ned has seen. Ned auditioned for the featured back position in last year's training camp, but killed his chances with fumbles. He was signed to the practice squad and, this year, has played only on special teams coverage.

"It's a chance to go out there and show what the coaches brought you up here for," Ned said. "They brought you here for a reason, so now it's time to go and take care of that job."

Moore and Ned might have the good fortune of running behind center Matt Birk this weekend. Birk left Minnesota's last game against Chicago with a sprained ankle, but said Wednesday he expects to play at Houston. Birk is listed as probable for Sunday's game.

"I remember in camp saying how deep we are at running back," Birk said. "Now we're going to find out."

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