Andrew Janocko was back home in Pennsylvania last January, sitting in a deer stand with his father, Tim, while the Vikings coaches were on a two-week break after the divisional playoff loss to the 49ers, when a call from Vikings coach Mike Zimmer came to his cellphone.
Wide receivers coach Drew Petzing was leaving to join Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, Zimmer said, and the coach wanted Janocko to replace him.
Petzing's departure meant two things: That Janocko, who had been with the team since 2015, was now the team's longest-tenured offensive assistant, and that he'd get to run his own position group for the first time in the NFL.
Thrilled by the news, the former assistant offensive line coach loaded up his laptop with film of the Vikings' receivers before he flew to Key West with his wife, Natalie, for a vacation the next day.
"She sat out in the sun all day, and I got on the video and just started grinding [video] on our players," Janocko said.
The lead-up to the 2020 season, Janocko's first working with receivers since his time with Greg Schiano in Tampa ended seven years earlier, brought more surprises. One of the two players Janocko watched the most on that vacation — Stefon Diggs — was dealt to Buffalo two months later. Justin Jefferson, the LSU prospect whose fluid routes and buoyant attitude caught Janocko's eye before the draft, wouldn't set foot in the Vikings' practice facility until Aug. 4.
Janocko, though, is the son of a coach and the product of a family of teachers. His first year as receivers coach with the Vikings will be remembered for his work, through a strange set of constraints, with one of the brightest pupils in a franchise that's had plenty of young talent at receiver. Jefferson heads into the final game of the season already having broken Randy Moss' Vikings rookie record for receptions (with 79), with just 47 receiving yards to go until he eclipses Moss' mark (1,313).
The first-round pick is a contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors; Janocko's effort, Jefferson said, helped him make up for the time he lost.
"He's been doing so much to help me, especially with all of the things that have been going on with COVID, not being able to report until like July, not having preseason," Jefferson said. "Andrew has definitely been going out of his way to help me learn the plays, make sure I'm good with everything that we're going over. His energy toward us getting better is beyond crazy. He has so much love for the game and for us receivers. He will do anything to help us."
The 32-year-old Janocko walked on as a quarterback at Pitt. He was a backup and a holder on special teams, but was mired far enough down the Panthers' depth chart that he began to turn his eyes to coaching.
Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti — who's now at Boston College — enlisted Janocko's help on a handful of special projects his last two years at Pitt. And receivers coach Scott Turner, who later became Vikings quarterbacks coach, kept an eye on him too.
Janocko's relationship with Cignetti led to a graduate assistant job on Schiano's staff at Rutgers, and he took Janocko with him to the Buccaneers in 2012-13. After a year back in Pittsburgh coaching QBs at Mercyhurst, Janocko landed in Minnesota as an offensive quality control coach, joining Turner here in 2015. He worked under Tony Sparano in 2017 as an assistant offensive line coach.
On the eve of the 2018 season, Sparano's death because of heart problems saddened and stunned the Vikings during training camp. It took away a confidant from Zimmer and an emissary for offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. For Janocko, it meant splitting offensive line coaching duties with tight end coach Clancy Barone, trying to think about the work ahead while dealing with the grief from losing a mentor.
"That was a blur of a period," Janocko said. "[It was] very emotional. I cared about Tony quite a bit; he was an influence on my life. Coach Zim, you could tell he was hurting, too. But when I sat in his office, I'll never forget it. It was, 'We still have an obligation to the organization, we still have an obligation to our fans.' We just had to try to figure it out."
His assignment this year would require resourcefulness of a different sort.
At Pitt, Janocko studied to be a teacher like his father and sister, and they put him in touch this spring with Whitney Bargerstock, who'd worked at the high school where Tim Janocko had been principal.
Andrew Janocko talked with Bargerstock before the start of the Vikings' virtual offseason program, hoping to pick up some insight on how to make digitally-delivered instruction stick.
"We've all used PowerPoint, but how do you get the message across?" Janocko said. "How do you make sure the time you're spending is worth it? You look at a screen for so long, but are you really retaining it?"
He'd meet with the receivers as a group, and then again individually with Jefferson, putting together virtual games through cut-ups of different plays and asking the receiver to recite what he was supposed to do on that play. It took some time for a player Janocko said prefers to learn things by walking through them on the field. The coach admitted he arrived at training camp not certain his virtual lessons had worked.
But Jefferson impressed in training camp, and had broken out as a receiver by Week 3, once he'd grasped the offense without the benefit of a preseason. His success, in the eyes of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, has plenty to do with the point-of-view Janocko brings to the receivers.
"When Andrew goes into a meeting with his players, he's able to talk from a quarterback's perspective. I think that's extremely important," Kubiak said. "He's able to tell Justin and Adam, 'When he sees this coverage, he's going here.' "
While Janocko had to search for ways to engage his players virtually, he doesn't have much trouble doing it in person.
"The biggest thing I talk to the guys about is, we are so very blessed to get to do what we do," he said. "I just try to make sure that comes out. I think the guys appreciate that, when you come to work every day and you're not afraid to be smiling, you're not afraid to be excited."
It's led to a season where Adam Thielen is third in the NFL in receiving touchdowns and Jefferson has a chance to take down another of Moss' records. In a year of change in the receiver room, their new position coach seems to have built a foundation.
"You can see that guys know their assignments; they're not making mistakes," Thielen said. "We knew that we had a good group going into the season, but yeah, I can't say enough [about] how he's prepared us. It's a credit to him of how he's handled our group, and I'm excited to continue to work with him."