In the offseason, the Vikings made a concerted effort to address the problems on the offensive line. What started with the injury losses of John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt prior to the start of the 2015 regular season led to the Vikings doing a major shuffling of the O-line, where the only starter who was in the same position as he was in 2014 was left tackle Matt Kalil.
Sullivan and Loadholt are back and the Vikings used free agency to sign guard Alex Boone and tackle Andre Smith to add to the level of competition. To heighten the level of change that is taking place, the Vikings fired longtime offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and replaced him with former Miami head coach Tony Sparano.
Any loyalty the old coaching staff had to the incumbent linemen is gone, as a new set of eyes is looking at the glut of offensive linemen that will be competing for nine or 10 roster spots. One of those players will be fourth-round rookie Willie Beavers.
A 40-game starter at left tackle at Western Michigan, Beavers was aware that he likely would have to change positions in the pros and it didn’t take long for the Vikings to affirm what he had suspected would happen.
“Right now, we’ve talked about starting the season with me lining up at left guard or possibly right guard,” Beavers said. “The plan is to have me somewhere on the inside, which is fine by me because I was expecting that when I came here. After last season I was told that would be a pretty likely possibility.”
The Vikings seem content on having Beavers focus on the left guard spot. Transitioning from one line position to another has its own set of issues in terms of footwork, leverage, technique and responsibility from one play to the next level.
Moving him inside will be enough of a transition for Beavers to handle. Moving him to the right side, which would result in having to learn his new position in what amounts to a mirror image where right is left and left is right, Beavers is embracing his new role and feels that moving inside one spot will make his transition easier to accomplish.
“I played left tackle at Western Michigan, so, if I’m at left guard, it’s all similar in muscle movements and technique,” Beavers said. “It’s just about getting the technique down pat. Inside guys are moving a lot quicker, so it takes some getting used to. But I’m ready for it. If they move to the right side, that will be a little different because everything will be the opposite playing on the right side of center instead to the left side. Right now, they’ve just moved me inside, so there isn’t much different other than my assignment and some technique things.”
Coming from a small school like WMU, mastering his technique will be a top priority because of the speed of the game at the NFL level. You can get by with a misstep in the college game and not necessarily get blown past by a defender. Make that same mistake in the NFL and your quarterback is likely going to take a big hit on pass plays and run plays will get blown up.
As a result, while Beavers is spending a lot of time picking up the playbook and the terminology the Vikings offense uses, he is doing his best to do the homework he needs to learn to pass the daily tests, which includes constantly being in the ear of Sparano to absorb more knowledge.
“I’m doing a lot of film work,” Beavers said. “I’m trying to become a way better student of the game. I’m just nagging Coach (Sparano). I’m getting under his wing and trying to learn the offense as much as I can so I can become more of a student of the game.”
The learning curve for any rookie is pretty steep, but Beavers is willing to put in the time to take in as much as he can, whether it’s on the field, in the classroom or watching tape.
The entire process combines with the goal of making every action and motion seamless. Learning the playbook and watching film have their role in that process, but there’s no replacing getting on the field and learning the system at ground level. Beavers is confident in his ability, but knows that he remains a work in progress and is hopeful that some of his veteran teammates will serve as mentors in helping refine and define his game.
“I learn a lot by going out and repping the plays, but I will ask questions if there’s something I don’t know so I don’t keep making the same mistakes over again,” Beavers said. “We’ve got a great group of guys on the offensive line. Hopefully, a couple of them will take me under their wing and show me the ropes around here.”
Beavers is the latest addition to a crowded offensive line room that will have to get rid of a half dozen or so players before the start of the regular season. Beavers is confident he can be one of the survivors of the eventual cuts, but that it will take constant work and preparation to get the job done.
For the moment, he’s living out his dream, but understands that to keep the dream alive, he’s going to need to work harder than he ever has in his football life. It’s a challenge he’s not only taking head on, it’s one that he is ecstatic about because he’s living out a dream he has had for years and his opportunity is no longer a distant dream. It’s a reality right in front of him and it’s as great as he imagined it would be.
“It’s still surreal to me,” Beavers said. “It’s still a little unbelievable that I’m here. It’s a great feeling. I’m trying to live it up with every rep and every time I take the field. I’ve worked for this moment so long and to finally be here and having this all happening is great. I couldn’t be happier than I am right now.”