Phil Rauscher's rough bark carried across manicured grass at TCO Performance Center, where training camp spectators chuckled while enjoying the Vikings offensive line coach's old-school profanity aimed at an offensive lineman blocking the wrong guy.
"A little loud sometimes," said right guard Oli Udoh, the subject of that dressing down, "but the message is clear usually that he just wants everyone to get better. You can definitely appreciate that."
The messages are clear with the loud but detail-oriented Rauscher, a 36-year-old assistant coach whose booming voice is leading the Vikings offensive line for the first time this season.
But Rauscher faces a communication problem with the reconfigured line entering Sunday's game at Arizona, where pass-rushing defensive linemen Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt pose challenges.
Blockers weren't always on the same page during the season-opening loss at Cincinnati. Center Garrett Bradbury yells out the protection calls before the snap, with quarterback Kirk Cousins holding veto power, but everyone bears a burden to communicate what is called.
Players have adjusted to Rauscher's forward style since he replaced Rick Dennison, the mild-mannered former line coach who was reassigned after refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But the Vikings linemen say Rauscher turned to details over decibels in the meeting room this past week.
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On Monday after the Bengals loss, Rauscher offered a few numbers to uplift the group: 12 penalties and seven points in the first half; three penalties and 17 points in the second half.
"Listen, when we're playing clean and we're doing what we're supposed to, we're really good," Bradbury said. "Let's build off that, correct mistakes and not be in third-and-20, second-and-20. That was the biggest message."
'Analytical and critical'
Rauscher was a backup UCLA offensive lineman when pain resurfaced from an old neck injury, a chipped bone he had suffered as a junior at La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, Calif. The lasting effects from the injury forced an early retirement after the 2005 season for the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Bruins center.
"I wasn't a real good one," Rauscher said.
So Rauscher became an assistant coach at the behest of then-Bruins coaches Karl Dorrell and Tom Cable. He helped recruit a Duarte, Calif., prospect named Mike Harris, who would become a three-year Bruins starter before making 21 starts for the Vikings between 2014 and 2015.
Harris, now the offensive line coach at Macalester, reconnected with Rauscher at the Vikings' headquarters more than a decade after their UCLA days. Harris sat in on Rauscher's offensive line meetings during training camp, taking notes on how to absorb a detail-oriented approach into his own coaching.
"He's real analytical and critical on stuff," Harris said. "In the run game, making sure guys take the right lateral step, position step, striking, making sure they have good fits so they can come off [blocks and] onto linebackers."
Mike Zimmer hired Rauscher nearly two years ago as a familiar assistant for Dennison, who was the Broncos coordinator during Rauscher's first NFL job in Denver. Rauscher credits his time with Gary Kubiak and Dennison, now essentially a virtual coaching consultant for the Vikings, as two primary influences.
The third is Bill Callahan, the Browns offensive line coach who was Rauscher's boss in Washington during the 2018 and '19 seasons. That's when Rauscher molded his approach, learning also from veteran linemen Morgan Moses and Trent Williams.
"We were loud," Rauscher said. "We were loud because we have to coach 15 guys. Just because you're correcting one guy, that doesn't mean he's the only guy getting the correction, and I think guys feed off that energy."
Callahan, the 65-year-old former Raiders and Nebraska coach, insists Rauscher didn't get the bark from him. But he encouraged Rauscher's unrelenting curiosity. Under Callahan, Rauscher studied similar offenses around the league — the Titans and 49ers among them — looking for elements to add to Washington's wide-zone running schemes.
"No question in my mind he'll continue to progress and advance [the Vikings'] system," Callahan said. "I hope I didn't train him too well, because we play them [Oct. 3]."
A time to teach
The offensive linemen are routinely the first players on the Eagan practice fields, directed by Rauscher to arrive 15 minutes before the scheduled start time. Before the intensity gets turned up, he talks with players individually about areas of focus for that afternoon.
"That's really a time to teach," Rauscher said. "'Hey, when you do a kick step, I want your ankle to stay outside of your knee, so you don't turn. This is what that should feel like.' Then go execute that when it's time to perform."
More field time is what the offensive line needs after they collectively struggled to identify the Bengals' defensive fronts, errors leading to unblocked defenders. Zimmer said he is expecting more loaded fronts from a Cardinals defense that arguably fields better pass rushers in Jones and Watt.
Jones, who will primarily face left tackle Rashod Hill on Sunday, had five sacks and two forced fumbles last week against the Titans.
"We're going to have our work cut out for us," Vikings offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said.
The communication issues stem from not carrying over classroom instruction into the game, right tackle Brian O'Neill said. Code phrases for certain defensive fronts were misunderstood or not heard. Some calls by Bradbury weren't made quickly enough. Some blocking assignments were carried out incorrectly as players couldn't see the forest through the trees.
"It's different when you see it out on the field in person," O'Neill said. "I'm only really seeing the guy inside and outside of me, where if we're in the meeting room, I can see the whole entire defensive structure."
"We could see something on a screen and say, 'This is how we want to handle this particular front,' " he added.
It was the debut for a reconfigured line with Hill at left tackle, Ezra Cleveland at left guard and Udoh at right guard. They await another adjustment whenever injured first-round pick Christian Darrisaw can step in at left tackle. For now, Rauscher sees encouragement in a heavyweight blocking dummy that hangs outside the weight room.
After every practice, Rauscher instructs linemen to hit the bag 10 times before heading inside. The goal of this detail, he says, is to "instill the mind-set of how we work."
"What I'm most happy about is at the end of the day, every day, they come and hit this thing," said Rauscher, who stood next to the blocking bag, "and I don't even have to tell them anymore. So, they must be believing in something."