Sullivan the answer man for young linemen

John Sullivan found himself busy answering questions for rookie linemen during offseason practices as the Vikings try to fill a hole on the offensive line.

John Sullivan is quickly becoming the Vikings’ answer man when it comes to offensive line play.

Sullivan, the veteran center who spent his rookie season watching and learning from Matt Birk, is now the one giving answers to rookies. His days of dispersing questions as a rookie are long in the past.

There is no shortage of inexperienced linemen looking for advice, either, as the Vikings have two rookies competing for a starting job next to Sullivan at right guard. That was the spot previously occupied by Brandon Fusco, who is moving to left guard, the position vacated by Charlie Johnson after the 2014 season ended.

“There’s some schematic stuff, assignment football. Techniques. Sometimes they’ll ask about what keys you’re reading to try to anticipate what the defense is going to do,” Sullivan said of the questions he was fielding this spring. “It’s just an overall feeling for the game. I try to explain that stuff and point out what they’re supposed to be looking for on tape and how it’s supposed to feel. Then just continue to answer those questions.

“One of the things that I want to say about them is the young guys do a good job of asking questions and reaching out and trying to get help because the onus is on the younger player to get coached up – ask when they don’t know.”

T.J. Clemmings, a fourth-round pick, started his college career on the University of Pittsburgh’s defensive line before making the switch to offensive tackle for his final two years of college. Now it looks like there will be another position switch for him, as he spent spring practices with the Vikings working at guard.

Tyrus Thompson played both tackle spots at the University of Oklahoma while starting 29 games, but, like Clemmings, has spent the majority of his rookie offseason practices working at guard.

“Both you can tell that they’re transitioning from being tackles to interior players,” Sullivan said. “The game happens faster on the inside and you don’t have as much spacing to deal with. They’re both guys that are up to the task and it’s just going to take more work. The install went well for OTAs and minicamp and it’s an important time of year, but there are no pads on yet.”

About a week out from the start of training camp (on July 25), neither seems to have a decided edge to win the starting spot at right guard and second-year pro David Yankey could also figure into the mix. Clemmings worked at right guard with the first-team offense for much of organized team activities until a minor injury temporarily sidelined him. Thompson took over after Clemmings’ injury and remained with the starters once Clemmings was healthy.

Sullivan said he has no idea which of the rookies – veteran Joe Berger could challenge, too, although he has value as a swing interior lineman – will start. Either way, Sullivan’s expectations will be high.

“Whoever ends up in there I expect to do the job well all the time,” he said.

“I think it’s just getting the young guys up to speed. I’m used to Fusco over there and when Brandon was out it was mostly Joe Berger, so getting young guys up to speed will take some time, but they’re working hard, they’re studying a lot, putting in extra time in meeting rooms with Hank (Fraley, assistant offensive line coach). They’re going to get there.”

Sullivan knows the feeling. He was drafted in the fifth round in 2008, but he wasn’t expected to start with Pro Bowl center Matt Birk in front him during his rookie campaign. Sullivan didn’t start that year, but he’s been a starter ever since and has missed only three games in the last six years since entering that role.

Despite coming from an offense that was essentially running an NFL scheme with Charlie Weiss at Notre Dame, Sullivan experienced his rookie learning curve.

“I think it’s just an overall feel for the game. There’s so much thinking that goes on with young guys. It just doesn’t come naturally. They haven’t seen all the looks,” he said. “Even if you come from a college that plays out of a pro system, the college game and the NFL are very different these days. It’s an adjustment. I came out of more of a pro-style system with Charlie Weiss. Really we were the Patriots offense at that point, but it’s still going to be a learning curve for any young guy.”

Both Clemmings and Thompson have credited Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt with being important sounding boards for them during their transition, but the real proof will start once the pads go on in training camp and the contact becomes real.

But during the spring, it was question and answer time, with Sullivan being the answer man.

“I’m probably answering more questions in the building than I ever have before,” he said, “but that’s good; that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

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