T.J. Clemmings is once again seeking stability in a storm.
A move back to the right side of the Vikings’ offensive line last week, where he made 17 starts as a rookie, wasn’t an immediate answer for the struggling second-year tackle. His play has dipped to a level that requires extra attention from Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who is trying to redirect a disjointed offense with a new play caller and its fifth different line combination Sunday against the Lions.
After Clemmings allowed four of the nine hits on Sam Bradford in Chicago, Zimmer pulled the 24-year-old aside for a pep talk this week at the team’s headquarters.
“It was good, just real positive,” Clemmings said. “Just keep on pushing, keep on playing and get back to where we need to be.”
An often intense Zimmer matched his player’s calm and collected personality, though a fire is broiling inside Clemmings.
“Not very often,” he said, does the head coach single him out for a little one-on-one time. And while the criticism is mounting, he’s trying to shut out the noise.
Clemmings isn’t one to make much commotion. He’s one of the quietest offensive linemen, guard Brandon Fusco said, in a group that isn’t full of boisterous personalities. It’s juxtaposed by his name being called by the broadcast booth too often, including on three hits, a sack and a holding penalty in a 20-10 loss to the Bears on Monday night.
“He’s pretty hard on himself, so I think that’s the reason why he’s pretty quiet,” Fusco said. “You never see the guy in a bad mood, though, and that’s a positive thing about him.”
As Clemmings sat inside Soldier Field and unraveled the loss in gobs of tape from his body, he fumed. He didn’t need to watch the film to know the verdict. By Friday, he’d decompressed by looking inward.
“Just pray. Relax,” Clemmings said. “Just think positively regardless of what everybody’s saying.”
That’s what the Vikings have to do, too. They can’t give up and accept the dire situation that is their tackle position. Three tackles have suffered season-ending injuries or illness between Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Mike Harris, after another, Phil Loadholt, retired.
A 5-2 team needs to squeeze everything it can out of the tackles it has left. Against the Lions, they’ll have only seven healthy offensive linemen. And the only available tackle standing on the sideline will be fourth-round rookie Willie Beavers, as Jeremiah Sirles is expected to fill in at left guard for injured Alex Boone.
Clemmings and Fusco are suddenly the Vikings’ most tenured side of a patchwork line heading into U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
“We got our work cut out for us,” Fusco said.
Entering his 23rd career start, Clemmings is searching for an upswing in what has been a roller coaster start to his NFL career. The fourth-round pick is only in his fourth full season playing offensive line after switching from defense at the University of Pittsburgh. After he was forced into action as a rookie, the Vikings wanted Clemmings to develop behind the scenes in 2016.
Instead, injuries have put his learning curve on display.
“He may have a couple bad plays here and there, but it doesn’t seem to affect him in the things that he does,” Zimmer said. “And that’s what I told him: You’re a fighter. That’s what you do; you go out there and fight. He’s going to go work out there as hard as he can. He’s going to give it as great of an effort as he can. That’s important.”
Fight is critical because November just started. These Vikings want to play well into January and, at the peak of expectations, in February. To do so, they’ll need Clemmings to keep picking himself up until he doesn’t have to anymore.
“We have a lot of football left, we just have to make the corrections and find a way,” Clemmings said. “Coach [Zimmer] always talks about finding a way, and that’s what we have to do right now.”