When the Vikings drafted T.J. Clemmings last spring, they knew they had a talented player, but they didn’t know what they were going to do with him. He could have had a year or two to learn the right tackle position at the NFL level. He could have been holed in at the right guard spot. Nobody knew exactly where he was going to fit in, but there was a plan for him.
That plan got expedited when Phil Loadholt was lost for the season with an Achilles tear. Clemmings would be thrown into the mix at right tackle and would earn his apprenticeship by fire on the right side.
It has been a learning experience with its share of ups and downs. In the last game, he faced one of the most daunting challenges of his career, squaring off against Denver’s pass-rushing linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Depending on formation, he could be facing Miller on the strong side of the formation or Ware if his side was the weak side.
Things won’t get any easier Sunday when the Vikings face the Kansas City Chiefs. If Denver’s dynamic duo of 3-4 pass rushers are viewed as the No. 1 duo, Kansas City’s Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are 1B. Hali’s availability came into question when he didn’t practice Thursday because of a knee injury, but Clemmings knows it will be a long day and much of the offensive success the Vikings have Sunday will depend on him getting his job done.
“They’re both good players,” Clemmings said. “The key for me is sticking to what I do well and not try to do too much or get frustrated. When you try to do too much is when you make mistakes. If you stay with the game plan and stick with the fundamentals, you can get the job done and keep them from getting at Teddy (Bridgewater).”
Clemmings has quickly become a student of the game and, when he watches tape of himself, he doesn’t often drop praise on himself. He is his own harshest critic and is always looking to find something to improve upon.
He understands that it is an ongoing process and that success or failure isn’t exemplified by one or two plays, it’s on an overall body of work.
“Every time I watch myself on tape, I’m looking for things that I can improve on,” Clemmings said. “I see the good things I do and I say, ‘Alright, that’s great,’ but what can I do better? What do I need to work on? Every day in practice, I’m working on something to just get better. Things take time. When I do some good things, I see them and want to improve on those as well, but it’s mainly things that I’m not doing well that I notice the most. I’m pretty tough on myself, so I tend to see the bad things more than the good things and those are the things that push me.”
Clemmings is finding it easier to see the facets of his game that need to be corrected and so are his teammates. He lines up on the shoulder of veteran guard Mike Harris and Harris has noticed Clemmings’ attention to detail on game day and in practice.
He may not always have good plays or technique, but he is seeing the improvement and his ability to minimize his mistakes.
“It’s never easy to play in the NFL, especially as a rookie getting thrown into it immediately,” Harris said. “There’s a lot to learn. You may think you know everything there is to know, but even the best college players have a lot to learn at this level. T.J. has done a good job of picking up on the little things he needs to do to get better and I think it is starting to show on the field.”
Clemmings is beginning to establish himself as a pro willing to work on his game and do what is necessary to improve on a daily basis in practice and a week-to-week basis in games. He had his struggles against Denver, but who doesn’t against that defense?
There will be no rest for Clemmings this week because Houston and Hali are the players that jump-start the Kansas City defense and he’s expecting that the Chiefs will be targeting him as a potential weak link on the offense line. It will be his job to make them pay for that line of thinking and it all comes down to the minutia that he has learned over the years and doing it over and over again until it seems like second nature.
“It’s all about fundamentals,” Clemmings said. “It’s the little things that make big things happen. You’ve got to focus on the little details and hone in on that. If I work on my craft every day, I’ll improve.”