Offensive tackle T.J. Clemmings entered the NFL as a fourth-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2015. He didn’t have a lot of experience at the position, though, since he had only played two years of offense, both at right tackle, during his time at Pittsburgh. His first two seasons in college were actually spent playing defensive end.
Coaches figured it may take some time for him to get up to speed and get all his techniques down, so they originally wanted him to sit and learn for at least one season. Things didn't go as planned, as Phil Loadholt tore his Achilles tendon in the preseason, which meant Clemmings became the starting right tackle for the entire 2015 regular season and the team’s one playoff game.
He had a rough go of things throughout the season and didn’t always look comfortable on the field. He admitted that he just didn’t quite understand everything the offense was trying to do in certain situations and that really hurt his development.
The 2016 season seems to be marking a change in Clemmings, though. The coaches made him the swing tackle during the offseason and he has looked much better while playing both right and left tackle. Head coach Mike Zimmer has seen the improvement and said a big reason is because Clemmings is no longer lunging at defenders and is carrying his hands much better.
The second-year tackle had to step up in a big way last weekend, filling in for an injured Matt Kalil at left tackle. It is a position he had very little experience at, but Zimmer seemed happy with the way he played.
“I thought he did pretty well,” Zimmer began. “He did a nice job in pass protection, used his hands well. There were some really good things in the running game. Obviously, there was some other issues. I think for the first time it was pretty good.”
Clemmings reiterated that he thought he did a good job, but that there were still plenty of things he could have done better. He mostly wants to clean up his run blocking, saying he needs to work on his footwork and then taking certain steps and angles on different plays.
Last week’s game was the first time Clemmings had ever played left tackle in his career, professional or collegiate, during a game that mattered. Luckily for him, though, Kalil had some injury issues he was fighting through during the preseason, so Clemmings was able to get some reps in then.
He feels those opportunities really benefited him because it allowed him to get a game-like experience at left tackle during a game that didn’t really count toward anything.
“They were definitely helpful,” Clemmings said. “That’s the good thing about the preseason; it’s like a real game. You’ve got the same game feel and same game situations, so being able to be in those before the season definitely prepared me.”
Players always talk about wanting to get comfortable on one side of the line, at one position, and that moving around can be difficult. They spend so much time at one spot that their muscle memory becomes hard to override and they often struggle to get comfortable when they move.
That has not been the case for Clemmings, though, partially because he hasn’t spent enough time at just one position to get that muscle memory hardwired in. Instead, he has felt comfortable flipping everything around in his head from the right side to the left.
For him, the biggest difference between the two positions has been knowing he now has to protect the quarterback’s blind side and go up against some of the best pass rushers in the NFL. But he still doesn’t feel any extra pressure.
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“I wouldn’t say I feel extra pressure, just understanding the importance and that I need to do my job really well,” he said. “So no extra pressure.”
If Clemmings’ goal is to do his job well at left tackle, then he is off to a good start. The only question is, can he continue to play at a high level on that side of the line for the entirety of the season? The Vikings placed Kalil on the injured reserve Sept. 21, so the job now belongs to Clemmings for better or worse.