The Minnesota Vikings’ starting lineup entering training camp this year will be different than last year.
Teddy Bridgewater is the starting quarterback, not veteran Matt Cassel. Charles Johnson and Mike Wallace are the starting receivers, not Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson. Fullback Jerome Felton is no longer with the team, giving way to Zach Line to be used in that part-time role. Brandon Fusco is the starting left guard, not Charlie Johnson, as Fusco moves over from right guard.
But as the Vikings are less than a month away from opening training camp, only one position really remains up for grabs: Fusco’s old right guard spot.
Rookie T.J. Clemmings, who played defensive line the first two years of his career at the University of Pittsburgh and the final two years as an offensive tackle, was used there during organized team activities before an injury allowed others the opportunity. During the final week of OTAs and during minicamp, that opportunity went to sixth-round pick Tyrus Thompson, despite Clemmings being back healthy.
“It’s been great. I’m learning a lot from (John Sullivan) and Phil (Loadholt) has been helping me out, too,” Thompson said. “It’s been fun. Whatever gives me the opportunity to get on the field, that’s what I’m wanting to do.”
Like Clemmings, Thompson played tackle in college at Oklahoma and is learning the differences between the two positions, even though he can’t be certain he’ll earn the starting job there or even that he will be asked to play guard more than tackle.
“All of those guys kind of move around. They’re trying to see what we can do, where we’ll be valuable at,” he said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for me right now at that right guard spot, especially trying to get on the field right now, as a rookie on top of that. There’s no pride in this (like), oh, I’m a tackle and all that stuff. I want to get on the field and I want to play.”
Thompson called it “exciting” to be practicing with the first team and he learned a lot from the veterans next to him. Sullivan has been a fringe Pro Bowl center for several years and is considered one of the smartest offensive linemen on the team. He has been a full-time starter since 2009.
Phil Loadholt has also been a staple on the starting unit, starting at right tackle since 2009. Both Sullivan and Loadholt have more than 90 games started in the NFL, giving the rookie contenders starting in between them a plethora of experience to lean on.
“Them two, how long have they been around? Eight, nine years? They know the system inside and out, like the back of their hand. It’s almost like having two coaches right there beside you,” Thompson said. “They’ve just been helping me out in the locker room. I’m going to ask them about some of the stuff we did and try to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes and just try to clean up stuff and do the best I can to help us win a Super Bowl.”
Thompson hasn’t played guard before, but he pointed out “there was a time when I never played tackle, either.” He played some left guard at rookie minicamp, his first exposure to the NFL, but when asked which position is most natural to him, he wisely said “offensive line.”
At this point, no one has won the right guard spot, but the Vikings will continue their search for the best candidate in training camp.
“The challenge is getting the five best playing and then getting them comfortable playing the position. We’ve used this work to try to get a feel for these guys and the best feel you can get for them is their athleticism and how quickly they learn and how quickly they adjust,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “The whole thing changes when we go to camp. They put the pads on, it’s a totally different deal and we’re lucky in that we have real good depth in the defensive line, so we’re able to evaluate these (offensive) linemen against very good players and it’s going to be very competitive, and I think we’ll come out of it with a very good starting offensive line and I think we will have a lot better depth than we had a year ago.”
For the 6-foot-5, 324-pound Thompson, the speed of the game has been an adjustment, whether it is at guard or tackle.
“It’s all a lot faster in the NFL, period. But just the speed of how quick things happen,” he said. “On the inside, those guys are right there on you right now already. Now it’s just a matter of almost knowing what to expect will happen, versus on the outside. The guys are fast on the outside, but you have a little bit more space because you’re kicking off the ball instead of flatter to keep the pocket more shallow.
“Those are things I have to work on in general already. It’s just reacting a little bit faster on the inside.”
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said the young offensive linemen were working hard during offseason practices and listen well, an important aspect with such experienced players at center and tackle surrounding them.
For Thompson, the opportunity is there and the expectations lofty.
“I have high expectations of myself. I’ll put it like that. I don’t ever expect to not be able to do something,” he said. “For me, I think I’m on track of what I expected myself to do. I’m just going to keep working hard to impress the coaches, make sure I’m delivery what they want.”
Thompson adjusting to NFL move, speed
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