Progress on the Mountain

First-round draft picks always get the initial publicity during camps and preseason, and Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie has shown improvement since the first criticism-filled days in late May.

The last two months have been busy for Vikings first-round draft choice Bryant McKinnie. After being taken with the seventh pick of the NFL draft on April 20, McKinnie came to the Vikings' offices, did numerous media interviews, took part in the first official minicamp a week later and then had four weeks off before developmental camp.

During that time, the left tackle admitted that he took on a few too many appearances and not enough workout sessions. So when he showed a lack of conditioning during the first days of developmental camp, it became headline news in Minnesota.

Head coach Mike Tice said publicly that McKinnie needed to get in better shape, and McKinnie admitted it, too.

But this week, three weeks later, McKinnie was looking better conditioned. In fact, it appeared to be a focused effort to work him hard in Wednesday's practice, as he took nearly all the reps at left tackle with the first team and even the second and third units. Was it for conditioning purposes?

"Not so much that," offensive line coach Steve Loney told VU. "What Bryant needs is, he needs as many snaps as he can get, whether that's with the first team, second, third team. It doesn't matter. He needs experience. You've got to remember that he's a kid that's played five years total of football. As much as experience as we can get him, regardless of what unit's going, is important."

By the end of three weeks of practices on Thursday, McKinnie looked in much better condition. He finished all 10 of the 110-yard runs the players did after practice, and he didn't lag behind the rest of the linemen in the group by 10 or 20 yards like he did three weeks earlier. It was evidence that his conditioning improved dramatically.

"No question. They ran a test case of the conditioning run [Wednesday]," Loney said. "He made all his times. So he's going to be fine, as long as when he leaves now that he makes sure to keep working on it."

During his short NCAA Division I career at the University of Miami, McKinnie's ability to go two years without giving up a sack became almost legendary. But Loney said the massive physical specimen (6-foot-8, 343 pounds) still has a lot of room for improvement in his technique.

"He's raw. There are some things that he was able to — based on his individual talent, I think — cover up in college that get exposed when you have a [Lance] Johnstone coming off the edge or get some people with a lot of speed," Loney said. "And also just knowing the different counters and techniques of defensive linemen, that's why experience so important."

Some observers think McKinnie may have to shorten his first drop step in pass protection or he could get set up for an inside move by quicker defensive ends, but Loney says McKinnie's big body and extension will only help.

"It isn't so much the first step as maintaining a good base throughout the set that's important," the position coach said. "He's got big, long arms. He can take that set, and I don't think it's really too far or too long to make a difference."

And, while the team isn't allowed to wear full pads for practices until training camp, Loney believes McKinnie can be a very effective run blocker, too. "You take a big body, and he can move around well, I expect he'll be fine," Loney said.

Three weeks of practices has made a big difference in the perception of McKinnie, and in six weeks fans attending training camp in Mankato will have a chance to formulate their own opinions about the first-rounder.

It won't be hard to spot him. Just look for the guy who stands a helmet taller than many of the other offensive linemen.

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