During the first two days of organized team activities (OTAs) last week, Anthony Herrera cracked the starting lineup at left guard. Of course, it was obvious to all involved that Herrera's return to the frontline of the offensive line was only temporary.
Herrera was a placeholder for mega-millionaire Steve Hutchinson, the guard that broke through the perceived salary ceiling for the position in March 2007 when the Vikings splashed a seven-year, $49 million contract on the table and Hutchinson bolted from the Seattle Seahawks to the Minnesota Vikings in a controversial move heard 'round the league.
With Hutchinson attending a charity golf tournament last Tuesday and Wednesday, Herrera took his spot in between left tackle Bryant McKinnie and center Matt Birk, realizing the promotion was only temporary.
"I see this as a time to work. Right, left, middle, I don't care. It's just time to work," said Herrera, who also spent some time working at center over the last two seasons but admitted his time there lately isn't too extensive. "It's just patchwork there. They throw you in at guard and you've got to work."
There was a time, however, not too long ago, that Herrera's placement in the starting lineup didn't seem so temporary. That was during the second half of the 2005 season, when he started the final six games and helped lead the Vikings to a 4-2 record in those final weeks of Mike Tice's regime as head coach.
During that six-game span in the starting lineup, the Vikings gave up only 1.5 sacks. Last year, when Herrera was a healthy scratch for 13 games and made no starts, the Vikings' quarterbacks were sacked 43 times.
So now, as it looks like Herrera is heading into another season relegated to a backup role, he is left to finish practice and go immediately to honing his hands skills on a suspended blocking bag. He is the lone offensive lineman staying after practice on this day to further improve his skills, and he speaks as if the frustration of a year on the sidelines has beaten him down worse than any defensive tackle or blitzing linebacker ever could.
"I'm focused, that's all. I'm just focused, that's all," Herrera said. "You can't worry about things you can't control. They pay you to come to work and that's what you've got to do. Right now, the goal is just to make the team."
Since Mike Tice was let go within an hour of the 2005 finale, things have changed dramatically for the Vikings – especially on the offensive line. A new head coach meant an entirely new set of assistant coaches, including replacing offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Steve Loney with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and two offensive line coaches.
The new coaching staff left Herrera with something to prove, but that was a familiar feeling for him.
"You've got something to prove every year. Every year stands on its own merit, every game stands on its own merit," he said.
So where does Herrera see himself fitting in on this offensive line in 2007?
"I don't. The goal is just to make the team."
It seems like a shocking statement from an offensive lineman that was – and probably still is – so full of potential, but that was one coaching staff and one blocking scheme ago. Despite all of Herrera's frustration the past 18 months and being perplexed by his sudden lack of playing time, he has an inner confidence that can't be put on the inactive list.
"I started four years at the University of Tennessee. I know I belong here. There's no question," he said.
So even if his descent on the Vikings depth chart takes another hit, "I'll be alright," he said. And then it's back to hand punches on the blocking bag.
Herrera Still Battling for Respect
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