Rashod Hill and Riley Reiff started 12 games together as right and left tackles, bookending the Vikings offensive line through winning stretches of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. 2018 was the last time Hill opened a season as a starter before this Sunday in Cincinnati.

Hill and Reiff will be reunited at Paul Brown Stadium that day, but on opposing sidelines and opposite sides of their lines.

Hill is taking Reiff's old spot at left tackle, where the Vikings' succession plan for their former team captain is in limbo. They're once again detoured to Hill, a 29-year-old veteran who steps into another starting role that wasn't expected for him. The Vikings drafted Christian Darrisaw in the first round in April to fill this spot, but he remains sidelined by a lingering groin injury.

Reiff, who was released by the Vikings and signed with the Bengals this spring, will start at right tackle for Cincinnati.

"It's going to be weird," Hill said. "Especially with him going to the right [tackle]. I always joked with Riley; he said he could play right, so we're fixing to see. It's going to be interesting. I can't wait to see him."

Darrisaw's ongoing recovery is the most significant unknown in a Vikings offensive line that left quarterback Kirk Cousins exposed repeatedly last season. Coach Mike Zimmer directed personnel evaluators to scout bigger linemen, and general manager Rick Spielman used more early draft picks on the offensive line. But Darrisaw is shelved indefinitely, and Hill has taken nearly every first-team rep as he prepares to play for however long is necessary.

Replacing Reiff wasn't Hill's expectation when he re-signed with the Vikings over a couple of other offers in free agency. Now he feels the gravity of a job that could set him up for a big payday as he's again scheduled to become a free agent next spring.

"It's a big role to fill," Hill said. "I'm not naive or stupid, so I know. You've got younger guys here and they look up to people, so I'm just trying to show what I can do and help as much as I can."

'Finding a way'

The same traits that led Spielman to pluck Hill off the Jaguars practice squad in 2016 — a rare 7-foot wingspan on a 6-6 frame — are why Vikings coaches feel he is capable of being an NFL starter.

Entering his sixth NFL season, Hill said his seasoned approach may help get more out of his physical gifts. He spent a couple of months this spring training with Saints Pro Bowl tackle Terron Armstead, who imparted variations of pass sets and footwork for Hill to try. For the third straight year, he attended an offensive line summit in Dallas, where he talked game strategy and training tips with other players.

Hill isn't the nimblest blocker in the Vikings' wide zone run schemes, where linemen are often asked to move sideline to sideline. He's been more reliable in pass protection with his height and long arms being difficult to bypass. But he can succeed even if it's "not pretty," offensive line coach Phil Rauscher said.

"Rod is not always built to do exactly what we do," Rauscher said, "but he does a great job of finding a way within himself to get it done."

Coaches stuck with Hill even when Darrisaw's injury layoff grew longer as the season neared. They've kept their top tackle, Brian O'Neill, on the right side. While they'd experimented with O'Neill at left tackle before last season, when Reiff was pondering a forced pay cut to stay, they did not revisit O'Neill switching sides this summer.

"You don't want to do that if you don't have to," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "If a guy gets comfortable with a position, let's try to keep him there if we can."

Hill has started four games as Cousins' blindside blocker, including last year's regular-season finale in Detroit, giving the two a rapport that was tested in camp. After Cousins was quarantined for five days by COVID-19 protocols, Hill said, it took just an afternoon to readjust his pass protection sets to Cousins, who doesn't drop back as far as the shorter Jake Browning.

"He's played a lot of football with me, and he's done a great job," Cousins said. "I love knowing he's been in the fire for a long time."

Bumpy road to recovery

Darrisaw walked laps around the Vikings practice field last week as he reached the end of his original two-to-three-week recovery timeline from a second groin surgery.

The hefty tackle, listed at 315 pounds, has been limited to rehab work, including stretching his core muscles and riding a stationary bike. Conditioning will be a factor in determining his readiness. He played through the groin problem last fall at Virginia Tech, and it was thought to be fixed with a January surgery performed by Dr. William Meyers.

But eight months later, Darrisaw visited Meyers again at the Vincera Institute in Philadelphia, and had a Aug. 12 operation that required a "minor incision" to alleviate pain on his left side, according to a league source.

Darrisaw is expected to return to practice Wednesday, according to Zimmer. He'll start with offensive line drills, and coaches will evaluate him from there.

"Is it the right footwork? Is he making mistakes?" Zimmer said. "How's he pass protecting? It's just going to be an evaluation each week, and then when we decide to put him in there, then we do — or if we do."

"Much of the offensive line is so much about footwork and working together, and getting off the ball at the same time and combination blocks," Zimmer added. "So there's a lot of things we have not seen him do."

Darrisaw, 22, isn't used to missing snaps because of injuries, having mostly played through ankle and groin issues in college. That toughness was cited by Spielman this spring as a reason he draft Darrisaw in the first round.

"He's just ready to get going," said Darrisaw's mother, Kim Cherry. "He wants to be healthy, and he wants [the pain] to be bearable for him to be able to go out there to function and play."

Teammates and coaches say Darrisaw has remained engaged. During meetings, he jots down notes on the whiteboard in front of the offensive line room. His locker is next to O'Neill, who said he's been impressed by the rookie's questions. The mental part is not a concern, according to Rauscher, who is just eager to see what Darrisaw can do in pads.

"It's fun to watch," Rauscher said. "It'd be more fun to watch him play left tackle, but he's connecting with the group, which is good."