When he came to the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie who had never missed a start (or, as he was quick to point out, a practice) at Pitt, offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings was issued a red flag at the Scouting Combine. It was learned through the medical checks that he had suffered a stress fracture in his foot that had been undiagnosed and had calcified, dropping his stock significantly on draft weekend 2015.
The Vikings saw the talent and the value in Clemmings, and that value was put to the immediate test when starting right tackle Phil Loadholt went down with an Achilles injury and Clemmings was pushed into duty at right tackle.
A year later, Clemmings has found himself coming in as an incumbent starter and is feeling good about the improvement he made in the first year of his NFL career, but understands that he is still a work in progress as an NFL player.
“There have been some good things that I’m happy about, but, the longer you play this game, the more you find out that there is a lot more you need to know,” Clemmings said. “It’s always a process. I’m always about building and improving and getting a chance to get out there on the field. That’s my goal and my focus.”
The addition of Tony Sparano as his offensive line coach has brought its own set of challenges because there is a different level of expectations that have come with his requirements. There is a lot of accountability this season that wasn’t necessarily there last year as the Vikings were scrambling to replace starters Loadholt and center John Sullivan.
“(Sparano) pushes us all to be better every day,” Clemmings said. “We have had a lot of competition this year and I think it has made all of us better because you understand that if you don’t get the job done there is someone pushing you to force you to improve your game.”
For Clemmings, that has meant competing with veteran Andre Smith, who was signed as a free agent in the offseason. Clemmings and Smith have been competing for the right tackle starting job since OTAs and it has been a spirited battle that has brought out the best in both of them.
Unfortunately for Clemmings, his versatility may have taken him out of the running for the right tackle job. When Matt Kalil was sidelined due to injury two weeks ago, Clemmings was shifted to the left side because the coaching staff was convinced he could handle the left tackle position as a fill-in.
In the process, it took him away from the competition at right tackle, but Clemmings isn’t complaining – playing time is playing time regardless of the position.
“That’s nothing I can really say, because it’s not something I’m responsible for,” Clemmings said. “I just want to be out on the field and helping my team win. Part of that is doing what my coaches tell me to do. When Matt got hurt, we needed someone to step in and they felt confident putting me there.”
When Kalil comes back, Clemmings will likely shift back to right tackle and still be expected to be ready at left tackle. His time away from the spot has likely given Smith the starting job, but Clemmings remains philosophical about his morphing role on the offensive line.
“I think it says a lot that the coaches have the confidence in me to move me over to the left side if there’s a need,” Clemmings said. “Part of playing the line is being able to adapt and step up when the team needs you. I’m just looking to contribute to the team and if that means moving when asked to and when the team needs it, I’m more than willing to do that.”