A year ago the Minnesota Vikings had one of the best fullbacks in the NFL with Jerome Felton but decided not to use him very often. A big part of that was likely because running back Adrian Peterson was away from the team so offensive coordinator Norv Turner moved away from the power running game.
Since Felton’s role diminished so much a year ago, he decided to opt out of his contract, which opened the door for Zach Line to become the starting fullback in his third NFL season. There was a bit of an adjustment period for Line in the first couple weeks, but he is quietly starting to have a good season.
“I think I’ve gotten better week by week,” he said. “Just keep working with (running backs coach) Kirby (Wilson) back there on the sleds. It’s not easy to do the dirty work so you got to keep getting better at it, and the more technique work you have the easier it is.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Line is blocking in front of Peterson. He is known to be a very aggressive runner who hits his holes hard, so if Line is not in the right spot then he is likely getting in the running back’s way.
Line said that during practice Peterson is still shoving him, even in walk-throughs, and just reminding him to go. He doesn’t mind it, though, and finds it to be a good reminder to not think about what he has to do and instead just make a play.
“I think you know you don’t have as much time to make decisions. You got to go,” Line said when asked what it’s like to block for Peterson. “He wants to hit the holes fast so you got to get to your blocks fast. That’s really the only thing. You’d like to sometimes get a better position, but the more you’re in this offense the quicker you’re able to get to things.”
Another thing that Line has had to deal with is a shuffling offensive line. Each lineman has his own style and will do things differently, so it takes time for the fullback to learn how he should block depending what the guy is in front of him.
In the offeseason, the coaching staff tried a few different people at right guard before settling on Mike Harris, right tackle Phil Loadholt injured his Achilles tendon and was placed on the injured reserve during the preseason and then center John Sullivan had to have surgery on his back because of a herniated disc.
All that shuffling made it difficult for Line to settle in and do his job, but now that the dust has seemingly settled he is starting to feel a lot more comfortable.
“It’s just been nice to have time with them since the season started,” Line said. “We’ve come a long ways since Game 1. They’re getting better and better, more physical. Obviously Zimmer wants that low pad level and dominate the run game, so we’re going to keep emphasizing that and I think that’s paid off well for us.”
The fullback hasn’t played in fewer than 13 offensive snaps in a game since Week 1 when he only got in six times. That amount of time could be a little surprising to some people after the limited usage Felton got a year ago, but Line went into the year without any real expectations about playing time.
“Some games where I think I’m not going to get a lot of plays I get a lot, and games where I think I’m going to go in and a lot of the stuff we’re going to do is heavy fullback sets we don’t,” he said. “You just never know. Obviously the situation of the game has a lot to do with it and how many drives you’re getting. Like last game, I thought I was going to get another series and they ended up getting a longer drive. We got down to five minutes and we had to drive the ball and the fullback wasn’t used. So you just never know how many series you’re going to get, and before you know it you’re back in the hurry-up offense and we’re going. The more points we can score probably the more I’m going to be in there, so we have to move the ball effectively when I’m in there to get the guys to call fullback fronts.”
Line did admit that it can get hard to sit on the sideline never knowing when he was going to be in or not. He has to make sure to stay engaged with what is happening out on the field so he is ready whenever his number is called.
But it can be a variety of things that affect the amount of playing time. Not only is it the play calling or the situation on the field, but turnovers and special teams play also affect it. One example he gave was last week when Marcus Sherels returned a punt for a touchdown. He was ready to go in on offense, but then Sherels returned the punt and Line had to wait for another series.
“I just try to get off my feet every once in awhile,” Line said when asked how he stays focused. “I used to like to stand the whole game, but I was getting tired. You get a sore back from standing around, so I try to keep my shoulders loose, keep my neck loose and just try to stay engaged in the game as much as possible. You stay engaged, you’re into the team – the whole team game.”
Line’s role will vary some from game to game, but it is clear that the coaching staff is continuing to gain trust in him as his role in the offense continues to grow.