In 37 career NFL games going into this season, Vikings offensive lineman Dakota Dozier had played 503 snaps on offense. But this season, Dozier has really been key for the Vikings line, as he has played 227 snaps, 60% of the offense's total plays.
Dozier started at left guard for Pat Elflein in the Green Bay game and at right guard for Josh Kline in the Chicago and Philadelphia games, playing every snap in those contests. His start at Green Bay was his first after signing as a free agent from the New York Jets this past offseason.
"I was very excited, any opportunity to get a chance to play is awesome, especially at Lambeau Field," he said. "It was an awesome way to get a start."
Dozier, 28, said he had an offer to return to the Jets, and New Orleans wanted him to take a visit, but he felt comfortable with the Vikings and their coaching staff having previously worked with offensive line coach Rick Dennison, the Jets offensive line coach last year.
"I had coach Dennison back in New York so he was here, it's good to have that connection. Very glad to still be with him," Dozier said. "Rico is awesome. I feel like he does a really great job explaining the schemes, letting guys understand and learn the plays. I really enjoyed the coaching and the man he was. I had the opportunity to be in the same room with him again, so I said let's do it."
Dozier, a South Carolina native, stayed close to home for college, graduating from Furman after picking between that school and Appalachian State. He is the only player from Furman currently in the NFL. His six years as a pro already tie for the sixth longest NFL career out of that small FCS program.
"I played left tackle [in college], loved it, ended up meeting my wife there and my senior year won the Southern Conference Championship, got to go to the playoffs," he said. "It was a fun way to end my senior year."
Asked if he had anyone that he really credits with helping him become an NFL player, Dozier said: "I definitely am pretty close to my high school coach as well as my offensive line coach and my college offensive line coach. Just was able to make some special connections with them. You spend a lot of time with your position coach and fortunately enough I enjoyed having both of them."
Improved run game
The Vikings rank third in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 159.0, after finishing last season 30th at 93.3.
Dozier was an important signing because he came on a one-year, $895,000 deal for a team with little salary cap space.
"I wasn't here last year but I know they had some struggles [running the ball]," he said. "It has been exciting to be able to run the ball the first couple of weeks. It's definitely something as an offensive line where we definitely want to continue to pound and improve on. If we can move the ball, we're going to do well."
Dozier said that blocking for a running back such as Dalvin Cook has made the season even better.
"Blocking for Dalvin is awesome. He's a great running back," Dozier said. "I love seeing him get out on the edge, if we can get him free through a hole, it's fun.
"The way he hits the whole, the vision he has, if you can give him just a split gap he can make a big play."
Schlueter stayed home
The Gophers offensive line has been the big key to putting together one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten through a 6-0 start and a No. 20 ranking in the Associated Press poll.
The Gophers have averaged 475.0 yards, 248.7 rushing yards and 37.3 points per game through three Big Ten contests. Those numbers rank second to only Ohio State, which has averaged 543.0 yards, 332.3 rushing yards and 44.3 points in three conference games.
The Gophers have given up only five sacks in three Big Ten games (1.7 per game), which ranks fourth in the Big Ten.
One of the big reasons for that success is left tackle Sam Schlueter, the redshirt junior from Mayer Lutheran High School. He is part of an offensive line which features no senior starters.
Schlueter is a huge and dominant tackle, coming in at 6-6 and 325 pounds.
He joined the program in 2016 when Tracy Claeys was the Gophers coach. He came from Victoria, Minn., with a population around 9,000, and attended Mayer Lutheran, with an enrollment of fewer than 200 students.
"It's a fairly small town, grew up there and went to high school in an even smaller town a little farther west of there," Schlueter said. "But I take a lot of pride in this state and what I can do for it."
Schlueter had offers from Iowa State, Louisville, Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
"I had a few other Big Ten schools that were taking a look at me, but I always knew I wanted to come here," he said. "No doubt at all."
One thing that set Schlueter's freshman class of 2016 apart was that he came in with other local players such as Carter Coughlin (Eden Prairie), Tyler Johnson (Minneapolis North), Kamal Martin (Burnsville), Conner Olson (Monticello) and Thomas Barber (Armstrong).
"We all have a lot of pride in this state and we really want to do something for this state," Schlueter said. "I think us sticking through it for the long haul — this is our fourth year here, we are in the middle of our fourth year now, and we take a lot of pride in that."
A breakout season
Schlueter redshirted his freshman season but got his big break in 2017 when he played in 10 games and started the final six. An agricultural and food business management major, he also earned an Academic All-Big Ten nod that year. In 2018, he started seven games, played in 13 and was once again named to that Academic All-Big Ten list.
But this season has been a big breakout for the Gophers and Schlueter.
"It has been a lot of fun," he said of the Gophers success. "It has been great. We're really starting to come along as an offense and it's really good to see."
He added that going against this Gophers defensive unit in practice has made the offensive line better.
"We're just out there trying to make each other better. We like doing it," he said. "I mean Carter as a defensive end has made me a lot better as a tackle. I like to think I have helped him out getting a lot better, too, every single day."
Does he find it impressive that the offensive line is doing this well without a senior?
"A lot more guys have had to step up and take leadership roles and we have leaders that have been developing," he said. "I'm really excited to see where we can go because we are young and we're going to get a lot better."
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • firstname.lastname@example.org