Old school has defined Vikings offensive lineman Ezra Cleveland from the start.
Cleveland, a second-round pick in the NFL draft in April, is named after a 1990s Supercross star, Ezra Lusk, whose speedy style relative to peers is emulated by Cleveland in football.
“I more liked the name,” said Jim Cleveland, Ezra’s father. “To me, it was different, but also old school at the same time.”
Gone, for now, are Cleveland’s own motocross days. He is focused on absorbing the NFL’s best pass rushers and not tree limbs from a dirt bike.
The Vikings need his blend of modern-day athleticism and old-school durability on the offensive line. He was drafted as the eventual replacement for veteran left tackle Riley Reiff, but is expected to spend his rookie season as a backup at left guard.
Cleveland’s Northwest roots translate well to Minnesota. Dirt trails outside his hometown, Spanaway, Wash., calloused him to football before he ever took it seriously.
The first injury was a broken collarbone when, at 5 years old, he was learning to operate the bike’s clutch while riding with Dad, and they veered into a fence.
“That was more my fault,” Jim Cleveland said.
Ezra once flew off the track and landed on his back, causing a deep bruise. His riding days ended in high school after he whacked a leg against a tree and developed a bad infection.
Still, Cleveland said, the worst pain came last fall at Boise State, where the 6-foot-6, 303-pound tackle stood on a sprained toe ligament requiring a cast inside his cleat for some games.
“That turf toe,” he said. “That was really rough, because I couldn’t push off my foot or anything.
‘‘It’s not that it, like, hurt really bad, but it was just that nagging pain of your big toe, which you use to do everything as an offensive lineman.”
With his mother, Shawna, a help desk technician for the Bethel School District in Washington, and his father, Jim, a heavy equipment operator for Boeing, Cleveland sometimes found child’s play in heavy machinery and digging up stumps in the yard.
His sports brought together the family, which includes two older half-sisters. Cleveland leaned toward baseball at a young age before Bethel High School football coach Mark Iddins persuaded the tall center fielder to get in the weight room. Jim became a junior high assistant coach because he attended practices so often.
Ezra, who has visions of one day making and selling pottery, eventually found he’s pretty good at knocking people around.
“He is a quieter guy, kind of a goofy guy,” Iddins said. “He’s one of those where you kind of have to get him to, like, ‘Hey, come on, fire up a little bit.’ It’s the lightheartedness you sometimes need as a coach. But he hates to lose.”
He’ll pick a side just to win. As a teenager, Cleveland became a 49ers fan because some relatives are die-hard fans of the rival Seahawks. Plus, he always liked the hard-nosed style of San Francisco running back Frank Gore. So when his uncles hosted a Seahawks viewing party for a game against the 49ers, Cleveland arrived in a newly purchased Gore jersey.
“I even posted it on my Facebook page with the jersey on and pointing to the back,” Shawna Cleveland said. “I kind of help him a bit to agitate my brothers. It’s funny to watch.”
Running into the spotlight
Cleveland was shedding blocks as Bethel’s star defensive tackle when Scott Huff, the Boise State offensive line coach at the time, took notice on the recruiting trail. Cleveland also played offensive line, but the big Washington kid moved a lot better than his three-star label suggested when he was set loose on defense.
“Running to the ball, chasing the play,” Huff recalled. “Comes free and changes direction really quick on the line of scrimmage.”
He even took a few handoffs as a creative injury replacement during his senior year at Bethel.
Cleveland, the running back, still holds onto the first down he gained, but remembers falling short at the goal line.
“Ankle biters the whole time,” he said. “No one ever really tried to take me head on. I was always pretty much tripping.”
About half of the interested Division I programs wanted him for the defensive line, but one visit to Boise State made for a quick recruitment. Cleveland latched onto Huff’s vision for him as a tackle capable of mirroring the most athletic pass rushers.
After starting 40 games at left tackle for the Broncos, Cleveland further separated himself during the NFL scouting combine. He was fastest at his position in change-of-direction tests — the three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle — and finished third in the 40-yard dash and fifth on bench press.
That speed of a former center fielder was once a curveball to programs like Oregon, which didn’t offer him a scholarship.
“They were like, ‘Oh, first base, huh?’ and he’s like ‘no, I play center field,’ ” Jim Cleveland recalled. “He just could read the ball off the bat and have that extra step and a half, two steps that he needed, and he could move pretty good as you could see from his combine stuff.”
‘Speaking it into existence’
Vikings running back Alexander Mattison, Cleveland’s former Boise State teammate, knew he would fit the zone-blocking scheme in Minnesota before draftniks made the connection. As soon as Cleveland declared for the NFL draft last winter, Mattison was telling him a reunion was possible.
About five months later, and after trade talks fell through with ex-Washington left tackle Trent Williams, General Manager Rick Spielman worried Cleveland would be taken in the second round of the draft. Efforts to trade up failed, but the Vikings landed him with the 58th overall pick.
“I knew that he would fit in our system,” Mattison said. “We were speaking it into existence from there.”
Cleveland may be headed for a “redshirt” NFL rookie season, especially after Vikings coaches moved him to guard, for now.
They wanted him in the mix for this year’s open spot at left guard, but rookies are shortchanged this year with no preseason and an abbreviated training camp. Cleveland is predictably behind veterans Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins for the starting job.
“There’s still obviously some things he has to work on, but he is athletic and has some toughness and I think some smarts,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Those are good qualities to have, but he does have to improve his technique.”
One of the team’s player comparisons for Cleveland was their own right tackle, Brian O’Neill, a former college tight end light on his feet and a bit too light on the scale when drafted.
Cleveland also needs to get stronger, but he’s yet to let some bruises hold him back.
“I’m trying to take it in stride,” Cleveland said, “and do the best that I can.”