Scoggins: Vikings line coach has spring back in his step

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 1, 2012 - 7:37 AM

After enduring a tough year, Jeff Davidson is on the mend and hopes his charges are, too. Adding Matt Kalil won't hurt.

Jeff Davidson has a new left tackle, a new left hip and a new diet that's helped him lose 74 pounds so far.

It's amazing what that does for a person's body and soul.

"I'm ready to move into next year," Davidson said.

You can hardly blame him for that, considering everything he endured the past 14 months. Davidson, the Vikings' offensive line coach, looks like a new man these days. He was practically floating on air after the Vikings selected Southern California left tackle Matt Kalil with the third overall pick in the NFL draft.

Kalil's arrival plugs a hole in the roster and shuffles an offensive line that is being reconfigured. The Vikings, in theory, now have a long-term fixture protecting Christian Ponder's blind side, a blue-chip talent at one of football's most important positions. That alone gives Davidson an optimistic outlook as he prepares to tutor a prized pupil and assemble a new-look unit in his second season with the team.

But Davidson feels better physically, too. He underwent hip replacement surgery in January to fix a debilitating injury caused by years of punishment as an offensive lineman. Davidson's hip deteriorated last season to the point that, frankly, it became hard to watch him walk. His discomfort showed with every step or, more accurately, every limp. He supported himself with a cane by the end of the season.

"Probably should have been on crutches," he said.

Davidson is old-school tough and deeply respected inside the organization. He served as captain at Ohio State, starting left tackle in the NFL and assistant coach under Bill Belichick in New England. He wasn't about to sit anything out, not even with a bone-on-bone hip.

"This past year was the first year where I got to the point where I had difficulty functioning," he said. "I'm not uncomfortable or ashamed to say it. I was uncomfortable and had a difficult time just carrying my body around."

A new hip was only one step. He also wanted to shed weight. He started a new diet plan and has lost 74 pounds as of Monday. He declined to reveal his starting weight or target goal, but he looks more like a tight end than an offensive tackle now.

"Both hips are actually doing better now because I'm only carrying the weight now of one person instead of two," he said.

Davidson doesn't particularly enjoy talking about himself or the events of last season. That's not his nature, and he finds no real value in it. Time to turn the page, he insists.

"It's definitely a year that I'll do my best to forget," he said.

It started ominously when Bryant McKinnie showed up to training camp overweight and was jettisoned, leaving a void at left tackle. Charlie Johnson, a natural guard, slid over to that spot and gave everything he had, but he was miscast in that role. Davidson, however, defends Johnson against criticism that he was the root of the line's problems.

"If you look at him and measure him and all those things, he doesn't have what you would call left tackle attributes as far as how you'd spell it out," he said. "But he was willing to go in there every day and play as hard as he possibly could and be as productive as he possibly could. Quite honestly, he did better than I think a lot of people give him credit for."

He's right. One person alone wasn't responsible for the team's 49 sacks allowed, which tied for fifth most in the league. Veterans Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera showed their age, and right tackle Phil Loadholt was wildly inconsistent. Center John Sullivan was the lone bright spot, performing well enough to earn a five-year extension in December.

The line's struggles necessitated change. Hutchinson and Herrera are gone, and Davidson anticipates new starters at left tackle (Kalil), left guard (Johnson) and right guard (undetermined at this point).

The spotlight will shine brightest on Kalil, who is expected to man a bull's-eye position for the next decade. That's a lot of pressure to foist on a rookie, but Davidson is excited to nurture that development and reconstruction of the entire line.

"I don't think the function of an offensive line is based on any one guy," he said. "These guys have to understand how to play together, how to communicate together. My job is to facilitate that and make that happen."

Davidson is focused solely on that task. He doesn't need any more reminders of what's behind him.

Chip Scoggins ascoggins@startribune.com

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