Kalil back to health, driven to rebound

Offensive tackle Matt Kalil is ready to get back to practicing full-time after knee surgery sidelined him from full-team work during OTAs and minicamp. Yet he called it his best offseason of preparation yet.

The Vikings are entering the 2014 season with high expectations despite being the last-place team in the NFC North last season. There are going to be plenty of changes coming, from the coaching staff to the players fighting for starting spots, but one of the changes will be from a familiar face, offensive tackle Matt Kalil.

Kalil, the fourth pick of the 2012 draft, spent much of last season playing through a knee injury that severely limited his mobility and effectiveness. To the untrained eye, it appeared as though Kalil took a significant step backward. A Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012, Kalil struggled at times last season, not due to a regression of his skills, but because he was willing to play through the pain to help his team, even after it became obvious that the Vikings weren’t going to be heading back to the playoffs.

As Kalil arrived in Mankato Thursday, he has proclaimed himself ready for 2014 and prepared to return to the form that he showed in his rookie season. It isn’t merely lip service, because he has backed up that projection by spending the majority of his offseason working on rehabbing the knee to assure that there won’t be a repeat of his 2013 struggles.

The true test will come when pads come on and plays start counting, but this day has been a long time coming and Kalil believes he is good to go without restrictions of limitations.

“I’m feeling 100 percent,” Kalil said. “I worked really hard this offseason. I’ve been in Minnesota since the end of February working on my knee. I think it’s finally paid off. These last weeks of workouts I’ve been going full speed. I think it’s the best offseason I’ve had.”

The Vikings training staff has built a history of being able to successfully rehab injuries in a timely fashion, yet not by pushing players too hard to get back into the lineup before they’re medically ready. Kalil expects to be the latest example of that because, while going along with the medical protocol of coming back in incremental steps, he’s cleared every hurdle in front of him and has been ratcheting up the recovery process by aggressively attacking rehab, which he is convinced has led him to being ready now.

“I’ve pushed it to the limit,” Kalil said. “I’ve tested my knee as much as I could. There’s no pain and it feels super strong.”

With a new offensive coordinator and almost surely a different starting quarterback than he worked with last year (Christian Ponder), Kalil said there is plenty to learn from the offense, but his larger concern won’t be how cohesive the offensive line is. He’s confident that in their third year together as a unit, the O-line is rock solid.

His bigger concern will be going up against his former USC teammate Everson Griffen, who replaces Jared Allen at right defensive end. Griffen is looking to make an impression and Kalil wants to make sure part of that impression doesn’t come at his expense during practices.

“There’s always more you can learn – obviously knocking the rust off for missing OTAs,” Kalil said. “It may take a few days to get the hang of it again, especially going against Everson. I know he’s a guy who will go 100 percent every play. Having a guy like that across the ball gets you ready for the season.”

Going up against Griffen in training camp one-on-one battles will be something new for Kalil. Despite being teammates, he didn’t play against Griffen at USC because Kalil wasn’t a starter yet when Griffen was running over offensive linemen in practice for the Trojans. Kalil was in awe at times as to what Griffen was able to do to offensive tackles in games and practice, so it was no surprise to him that, when the Vikings had to make a decision at defensive end, they re-signed Griffen to a lucrative contract and let Allen leave via free agency.

While some skeptics will say Allen is impossible to replace given his sack production, Kalil doesn’t share that opinion. He’s seen Griffen already and said the naysayers will be surprised because Griffen is a high-level talent that is going to prove it in 2014.

“He’s the guy,” Kalil said. “He knows he’s the guy, he just needed the opportunity. They definitely gave him that with his new contract. I know he’s going to try to beat me every play. That makes us all better.”

After a lights-out rookie season that ended with a trip to Hawaii, this past season was the other end of that spectrum. He bore witness to the polar vortex – no small feat for a California native. His offseason wasn’t spent in the Cali sunshine for a reason – Kalil is driven to making his return 100 percent to once again being a foundation block on the Vikings O-line. Success requires some sacrifice and Kalil was willing to put in the time to accomplish that, even if it meant being away from friends and family during the NFL’s down time.

“Obviously you miss home, but it’s a goal I wanted to accomplish and have a great a year,” Kalil said. “You have to sacrifice a little bit of the offseason to achieve that.”

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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