T.J. Clemmings was thrown from virtual unknown into the starting fire because of injuries that melt the hopes of many teams.
Only 13 months ago, Clemmings, then a rookie, was rotating at guard and tackle during organized team activities as the Minnesota Vikings tried to figure out where he might best fit as a backup. The answer coaches would arrive at a few months later was that he could no longer sit and season as a backup.
A torn Achilles for Phil Loadholt in the preseason thrust Clemmings into a starting role at right tackle. Almost 1,100 regular-season snaps later, Clemmings realizes he learned plenty from his trying rookie season.
“It’s a different guy each week. It’s a different game week to week. Some things for us are obviously carryover, but the speed of the game is a lot faster and once you get used to the speed of the game it starts to slow down,” he said during his second minicamp last week. “That’s where I got I would say a little bit past halfway. Last year I was able to really understand a little bit better, be a little bit more honed in the on the game plan. Once you get that, it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got this.’ That was the nice part about it.”
Clemmings came to the Vikings as a fourth-round draft pick that had only two years of experience on the offensive line. He played two years of defensive line at Pittsburgh before suggesting to his college coaches that he give offensive line a try.
Turns out, that was the move that allowed him to even be considered an NFL player. But last year at this time the Vikings viewed him as a possibility to compete at right guard after moving Brandon Fusco over to left guard. This year, Fusco is back at his more comfortable position at right guard and Clemmings is being shuttled over to the left side of the line as a backup to tackle Matt Kalil after replacing Loadholt at right tackle last year.
The return of Loadholt and the signing of free agent Andre Smith sent Clemmings to the left side, another unfamiliar spot for him after playing on the right side of the Pittsburgh Panthers’ offensive line.
“It’s a lot easier moving around. I played right side last year and now moving over to the left and getting some reps over there. Now it’s more mental, just making sure you remember what side you’re on,” he said. “It’s definitely not as difficult as my first year.”
But it may not be the final move for him.
“I think he’s done very well. I think T.J. has a chance to be a good football player. And I’m not too sure the left side is going to be eventually where he plays,” head coach Mike Zimmer said last week. “We may look at him some more back on the right side. But I think he’s improved a lot this spring and he works really hard and he’s a heavy-handed guy, can punch good, so those are all good attributes.”
Clemmings was the 62nd-ranked tackle in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus’ grades, but learned plenty as a rookie that was asked to perform under less-than-ideal circumstances. Because of injuries, he was asked to accelerate his development. Becoming an NFL starter after only two years of playing offensive line in college was a big request.
But now he has some experience practicing at guard and a year’s worth of experience playing tackle. He has also experienced both sides of the line, at least in practice settings.
“Now it doesn’t feel too different to me. I guess you could say that’s what a couple weeks does, repping it and getting the mental reps, that helps,” he said.
“I didn’t play any guard in games or anything last year, but just understanding more of what is expected of me as a tackle has definitely helped and seeing the bigger picture. Last year was more of, ‘OK, this is my job; this is who I block.’ Now it’s like, ‘OK, this is who I block, but if this happens this is what the changes are’ and things like that. I’m just expanding in that area.”
However, with veteran talent returning (Loadholt) and added (Smith), his role is uncertain.
“I view it as competition. You go in and compete. That’s what it’s about,” he said. “If you’re not competing, you’re not going to do yourself any justice in this league. It is what it is. The changes are what they are. My job is to get better and focus on myself getting better.”