Each year right about now I welcome young players to school football. Some have already played for many years while others just like watching on television and thought they would try it out. But no matter if I have only fifteen or fifty kids, I usually cannot get five to tell me they want to play offensive line. I could be staring at the obviously largest kid in the grade and he will tell me with a straight face he is a quarterback.
Really.... you have run a lot of veer, have you?
Usually the more timid, or smaller players ask to be wide receiver. I could have twenty kids come out and nine of them want to be a receiver. When I later inform the majority of them that they may also play some line while the nine of them rotate in at wide receiver on a run-based seventh grade team, they question my logic.
"Coach, I am too small" or "I've never played line" or "I'll get killed, Coach".
It is a rare treat when any kid tells me he wants to play line. Usually by high school time kids figure it out. If you are a little slow of foot, you are most suited for the line. If you are big and strong and quick, you are a gold mine. If there is more than a few big, strong, and quick players.. you have a solid football team.
Fans tend not to be too aware of offensive linemen. Unless they are exceptional at their position or make a lot of mistakes. But if you asked a Vikings' fan to name their favorite offensive lineman growing up, they could. For me, it was Ron Yary. He joined a veteran line right about when I started following Minnesota daily in the fall. I liked his name. He was the starting right tackle from 1970 until 1981. I stopped liking him late in his career when the adults around me used very colorful language to describe how often he chose to hold opposing players.
Those dynasty years, where Minnesota was expected to win on every given Sunday, were highlighted by a steady offensive line. Mick Tingelhoff was the starting center 1962 to 1978. Guard Ed White was a starter at left guard from 1971 to 1974 and then right guard 1975 to 1977. Wes Hamilton assumed right guard from 1978 to 1983. Grady Alderman was the starting left tackle from inception, 1961 to 1974. Steve Riley took over in 1976 until 1984. At left guard Jim Vellone was there from 1966 to 1971 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. After White replaced him, Charles Goodrum held the position from 1976 to 1979.
Not too much change. In fact, Minnesota linemen have been far more steady than other positions. After Yary, Tim Irwin was right tackle from 1982 to 1993. That means two players were our right tackles in a twenty-four year span. Left tackle has since had Gary Zimmerman (1986-92) for seven seasons, Todd Steussie (1994-2000) for seven, and Bryant McKinnie (2002-10) for nine. Center position was occupied by Dennis Swilley (1979-86), Kirk Lowdermilk (1987-92), Jeff Christy (1994-99), Matt Birk (2000-08), and John Sullivan (2009 to present). That means, including Tingelhoff, Minnesota's center position has been controlled for over fifty years by six players.
While guard has been less steady, no one would forget Hall-of-Famers Randall McDaniel (1988-99) or Steve Hutchinson (2006-11). The top two rushers (Robert Smith and Adrian Peterson) in Vikings history spent many plays running behind them. Certainly there has been a greater turnover at guard through our history.
Fast forward to 2015.
Phil Loadholt was put on injured reserve this last week. He has been the starting right tackle since 2009. The job is now up for grabs, with rookie T.J. Clemmings from Pittsburgh, the front-runner for the position. Right guard now is Mike Harris, who has started 17 games in his first three years at both San Diego and Minnesota. Left guard is former starting right guard Brandon Fusco who was injured last year. Both center and left tackle have remain unchanged. Matt Kalil begins his fourth season as starting left tackle, while Sullivan enters his seventh consecutive season.
Not exactly a steady report, but it could be worse.
With the news that back-up Carter Bykowski is now also out for the year, attention is turned to the depth at offensive line. Joe Berger is an eleven year veteran who has spent the last four in purple. He can play many positions and is the present back-up center. Three key player to watch the remainder of the preseason include: David Yankey; Tyrus Thompson; and Austin Shepherd. In order to have a successful 2015, one or more of these three will need to step up into a much bigger role than is now forecasted. In addition, we may end up hearing about free agents or cut offensive linemen in the very near future.
Or even someone from the depths of the roster may step forward. I know if polish wunderkind Babatunde AIyegbusi or Isame Faciane work their way into the lineup, they may have a few fans who just like their names.
Yesterday, Robert Griffin III, who had self-pronounced himself as the best quarterback in football, was battered like a shrimp before a fry by the Detroit Lions. He is now concussed and questionable. Teddy Bridgewater, much quieter than RGIII, has been very good since he assumed the starting quarterback position. However, he was sacked 39 times in 12 starts last year.
If Minnesota is to have a return to the playoffs in 2015, they will need a healthy Bridgewater. That is why the offensive line is paramount to purple improvement. Offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, along with assistant line coach Hank Fraley have their work ahead of them. As the defense steadily improves, more and more eyes will turn to the offensive line.