David Yankey walked off the practice field Thursday, beads of sweat still making their descent down his wide face, and began listing off all of the things he learned during his silent rookie season.
There were plenty of lessons that one could pick up in a meeting room with veteran offensive linemen like John Sullivan and Joe Berger. There were “all those little technical things” that offensive line coach Jeff Davidson had tried to hammer home. And then the 23-year-old lineman got around to mentioning perhaps the biggest takeaway of them all.
“I also learned a lot of patience,” Yankey said. “And I’m really trying to work hard to get as good at my craft as possible and give myself a chance to actually play this year.”
The Vikings selected Yankey, a two-time All-America at Stanford, in the fifth round of last year’s draft. But Yankey stayed in street clothes for all 16 games, a season-long healthy scratch even though right guard Brandon Fusco was lost in Week 3, starting left guard Charlie Johnson performed poorly and Johnson’s veteran backup, Vlad Ducasse, did not fare much better.
Coach Mike Zimmer was as blunt as ever last season when asked why Yankey didn’t get a chance to play on gameday. The rookie simply was not physically strong enough, Zimmer explained.
So for the first time since his freshman year at Stanford, when he was injured two games into the season and subsequently sidelined, Yankey sat and watched the big boys play.
“It’s tough because you feel like you’re not contributing to the team,” Yankey said. “As a player and competitor, you want to go out there and compete. The Vikings brought me here to play football, so you feel like you’re not doing your job.”
This offseason, Yankey set out to get stronger by building on the progress he made in the weight room last year with Vikings head strength and conditioning coach Evan Marcus.
In March, he headed back home to Georgia to work out with trainer Ryan Goldin. Goldin’s other NFL clients include Bengals guard Clint Boling, whom the Vikings flirted with in free agency.
For two months, Goldin put Yankey and the group through grueling workouts nearly every day. Yankey’s top priorities were strengthening his lower half and improving his core strength to improve his knee bend when rocketing out of his stance and his balance once engaged.
When Yankey reported to Winter Park in April for the start of voluntary workouts, he said he felt like a different player than the one that left the building back in January.
“I feel like I’ve personally made strides,” Yankey said. “But you’re going to have to ask [the Vikings] what they think about it.”
So, Coach Zimmer, what have you seen from Yankey this spring?
“He’s done better. He’s done better these OTAs,” Zimmer said. “Now … it’s just so hard to evaluate the offensive and defensive linemen unless you’re seeing them doing the right things. But he’s looked much improved in these OTAs.”
The Vikings shuffled their offensive line combinations throughout their organized team activities, which concluded Thursday. The most significant change was sliding Fusco over from right guard to left, opening up a vacancy at Fusco’s old spot.
Yankey is one of a few young linemen they are moving around. Last week, he played right guard with the first-team offense after rookie fourth-round pick T.J. Clemmings suffered a minor leg injury. On Thursday, Yankey was back at left guard. The Vikings have also given him some snaps at left tackle.
Yankey says he doesn’t care where he plays as long as he can compete for a starting job.
“To say I want anything less than to start would be a lie,” said Yankey, who was born in Australia and moved to the United States as a child. “I’m here to compete and work as hard as I can and give it my best shot.”
Soon, Yankey will be looking to turn some heads in Mankato. Training camp is when the players finally get to put on the pads, and he hopes to show the coaching staff that he is finally ready to be a factor.
“I’m pumped. You really get a chance to prove yourself in [training camp and] the preseason games, put real film on and let the coaches evaluate you,” Yankey said. “Obviously, they’re evaluating all the time. But that’s when it is really grind time and everybody gets to get a look at the work you put in all offseason.”