At this point a year ago the right side of the line was expected to be a strength of the team. Both Phil Loadholt and Brandon Fusco were experienced veterans who had worked together often and they were both healthy.
This year is a different story, though. Fusco has moved to the left side of the offensive line and Loadholt is on the injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon. The players replacing them are Mike Harris, a former tackle now playing guard, and T.J. Clemmings, a rookie tackle drafted in the fourth round.
Harris’ performance has been a pleasant surprise for most people this preseason, but if you ask the team’s offensive coordinator Norv Turner he expected this kind of play.
“He played good for us last year and it doesn’t surprise me,” Turner said. “He’s got things he’s got to get better at and every game you get on film people are looking at you and looking at things they can do to beat you. Because he has moved positions he still has a lot of work to do and we have a lot of work to do on the offensive line and we don’t have a whole lot of time to get it done before the opener. So he’s just got to come out here like (head coach Mike) Zimmer said and we’ve got to get better every time we go practice and we’ve got to get something out of every opportunity we have.”
Apart from a few mistakes and misses in the running game, Clemmings has also played well in his first two games playing with the first-team offense. But it is the same type of thing with Harris, where he still has a lot he needs to improve on before the start of the regular season.
“He’s gotten a lot better with his initial sets and his technique,” Turner said. “I think he’s getting better every day. Like I just said, I think he’s got a long ways to go. We have a long ways to go as an offensive football team, as an offensive line. Coach Zimmer has talked to our football team repeatedly in the last few days. We’ve got to get better and get something out of every opportunity that we have – whether it’s a walk-through, practice, preseason game – because we are trying to catch up in some areas.”
While Harris is a veteran of the offensive line, he is new to the guard spot. Having a rookie lined up next to him only complicates matters on the right side. No longer is it veteran lined up next to veteran.
The Vikings do not have that luxury on the right side of the line, but they feel like the two inexperienced players have been working well together so far. And Turner gives a lot of the credit to offensive line coach Jeff Davidson.
“I think communication and all that is really good,” Turner said. “I think they’re two young players in terms of Mike being new at the position and T.J. being a young player. But Jeff does a great job with them in breaking things down and teaching them what they need to get done. There are challenges ahead for us because, again, people start attacking you in terms of your scheme and they start attacking personnel and I don’t think we’ve seen that yet.”
Once teams are able to watch more tape on the right side of the line, they are likely going to see multiple things that they can exploit. It will then be up to Clemmings and Harris to improve what they are doing, expect teams to try to take advantage of them and hold up against the opponents.
Turner knows that with all this inexperience and changing pieces along the offensive line that there are going to be a few “hiccups” along the way, but he also thinks “we have a chance of developing into a real good offensive line.”