When Tony Sparano was hired, the Vikings were gaining not only a respected offensive line coach, but also someone who had head coaching experience and had been in the NFL for 18 seasons.

But even Sparano, who replaced the fired Jeff Davidson, couldn't have imagined how difficult this season would be on the offensive line.

"It has been a challenge, obviously, with the number of injuries," Sparano said. "But you know, like any other position on the football team right now, we have to have the next guy in line step up. It's forced some younger players to get out and play a little bit, which has helped us down the line a little bit here."

Anyone would have to make the concession that the Vikings offensive line has been hit tremendously hard by injuries. Starting left tackle Matt Kalil and right tackle Andre Smith are on injured reserve, as is Jake Long, who was signed as a replacement for Kalil. Longtime right tackle Phil Loadholt retired before training camp started, and center John Sullivan was released because the team believed he couldn't compete physically on the line.

"I haven't been part of anything quite like this, where we've had eight different lineup changes in the offensive line in nine games," Sparano said. "But that's part of the job. I think making sure these younger players have gotten better along the way during training camp and all this stuff right now has helped us, so they're prepared to play here."

Run game hurting

There are few things going right in the Vikings running game, which ranks dead last in the league in most major categories. Still, Sparano said he believes that can change.

"I think running the ball, it's not different than anything else, it's a group effort," he said. "It doesn't just go into five guys, it goes into everybody. It's a different mentality. I think little by little we're making progress here, but we have to make progress a lot faster."

Sparano coached the offensive line for the Cleveland Browns in 2000, the Dallas Cowboys in 2005 and '06 and the Oakland Raiders in 2013 and '14. And while the offensive line isn't the lone barometer for rushing success, Sparano's teams have shown mixed results.

The 2000 Browns, a team that went 3-13, the team finished 30th in the league at both 67.8 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry. Dallas was 13th in the league in rushing both of Sparano's seasons, at 116.3 yards per game in 2005 (3.6 per carry) and 121.0 in 2006 (4.1). The 2013 Raiders were 12th in the league at 125.0 yards per game (4.6 per carry), but in 2014 Oakland fell to last at 77.5 yards per game (3.7).

Still, that's nothing compared to what the Vikings are doing. They are on pace for 1,116 rushing yards this season, which would be the lowest total in the NFL since the San Diego Chargers rushed for 1,062 yards in 2000. More than halfway through the season, they are averaging only 2.7 yards per rush. No NFL team has rushed for fewer than 3 yards per attempt since the 1994 New England Patriots at 2.8.

"Yeah, I have not been through a stretch like this running the football, but we have to be patient and we have to understand that as long as we keep going out there each and every day and working hard at it, we'll get one of them to break," Sparano said. "Sometimes all you need is one of them to break out of there and all of a sudden you get a little bit more confidence and start running it well."

Sparano added that he doesn't believe this is strictly a personnel issue and that the team should be able to find answers.

"I think it's a mentality, I think you can go out there and we can run the ball and with the right mentality," he said. "The last couple of weeks we've been in some football games where we've had to throw it at the end of ballgames to get in the ballgame or keep ourselves in the ballgame to have a chance to win.

"But that being said, we have to keep getting better up front. And the right mentality, all of a sudden one of these [runs] break and we get a good gain out of it, and I think it will go a long way."

Looking for help

Sparano was asked if the Vikings need to draft an offensive lineman in the early rounds next year.

"I don't know," he said. "That's not a question for me right now. I mean, I just go out there every day and whatever group I have in my room, I coach those guys, and we put the best five guys we can put out there to play the game."

The Vikings have only one offensive lineman on the practice squad at this point, but it's someone who has some experience: Austin Shepherd, who played 14 games with the team last year.

Sparano, who has been a head coach, an offensive line coach, a running game coach, an offensive coordinator and a tight ends coach, was asked if this position is the hardest to coach.

"I think it is," he said. "I've had to hire people before and I've had to hire different positions before, and I think finding the right line coach and a couple other different positions on the staff are critical. They're critical. You have to have somebody that can develop young players, and I think you have to have somebody that is flexible enough to use all the parts in the room. I think it's pretty important. But I'm just coaching the line."


• Everyone on the Gophers offensive line should return next year with the exception of Jonah Pirsig, so it could be the best offensive line the team has had in some time. The team's future for 2017 should be bright, with only 12 other seniors listed on the roster: defensive backs Jalen Myrick, Damarius Travis, Alexander Starks, Eric Amoako and Ace Rogers; defensive linemen Scott Ekpe, Hendrick Ekpe and Yoshoub Timms; linebackers Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis; wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky; and quarterback Mitch Leidner.

• And look at the number of true freshmen playing a lot for the Gophers. Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. and Coney Durr, linebackers Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin, defensive lineman Tai'yon Devers and wide receiver Tyler Johnson all have contributed plenty this season and should be ready to contribute right away next season.

• In his conversation with Blair Walsh notifying him of his release, Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer told the kicker that a change of scenery might be the best for him. Priefer also told Walsh that at same point he's going to turn it back on and that going to another place will really help him.

Fred Konrath, who coached White Bear Lake to two football state titles in the 1970s and later worked for the Gophers, died after a long illness at age 73.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com