Q&A: With DL Coach George O'Leary

The Vikings' commitment to stopping the run starts with the defensive line. Position coach George O'Leary likes what his troops have done there, but he says they need to work on the pass rush now.

George O'Leary joined the Vikings coaching staff largely because of his connection to Mike Tice. When Tice was named the head coach in January without any previous head coaching experience at a top level, he realized it would be good to have a sounding board. Since O'Leary was Tice's coach in high school and had gone on to become Georgia Tech's head coach, Tice knew O'Leary had experience that would help a new head coach.

O'Leary was named defensive line coach and assistant head coach, representing his position as Tice's right-hand man.

Besides coaching at Georgia Tech as an assistant from 1987-91 and as head coach from 1994-2001, O'Leary also coached at Syracuse (1980-86) and the San Diego Chargers (1992-93).

Q: How pleased are you with the play of the defensive line?

A: They are playing extremely hard. We are defending the run fairly well. We have guys that get off blocks and do a good job in that area. We probably need to spend more emphasis on the pass and the pass rush. Not that the effort is not there, but a lot more awareness in the rush.

Q: What about Chris Hovan's contributions?

A: Chris has a lot of hurries and quarterback pressures. He is one step from getting some sacks, but I think he's a constant effort guy, a motion guy. I think all four guys need to arrive at the quarterback at the same time. At times, he has had some legitimate sacks that he has lost because someone else didn't take care of their responsibility. But I think that's why it's so important that when you have a unit they rush together and not just one guy rushing or another guy rushing. They basically complement each other. That's what we continue to work on right now.

Q: Before the season, you said Hovan had the potential to be a Pro Bowl player. Do you think he's having that type of season?

A: I think he is having a very, very productive season without a lot of limelight. Very rarely does he get singled in the run game or the pass game. When he does get singled, he's usually somewhere around the ball when it ends. I think he's what you are looking for … continually working on his awareness and instinctive stuff is what he needs to continue to work at.

Q: Lance Johnstone seems to have made progress from last season. How would you assess his performance?

A: I think Lance is playing both the run and pass well. I think he is very aware as a player. He very rarely gets caught out of position, and he has made some big plays this season so far.

Q: As a unit, where do you still want to see the most progress?

A: I think our unit pass rush and consistency. The effort has been outstanding, but the awareness needs to pick up so that we can help each other out in some of the things we are seeing as far as protection is concerned.

Q: What is the key to accomplishing that?

A: I think the key is just basically having all four guys understand which way that center is turned, so that basically our utilization of skills are best as far as techniques are concerned and any rush games you want to use.

Q: Kenny Mixon was one of the key offseason additions. Has he done what you expected?

A: Kenny has made some outstanding plays this year. He plays with a lot of emotion and a lot of aggressiveness. I think Kenny is playing the run extremely well. Again, something we are continually working on is our pass rush techniques and skills. I think that's what we are getting people to do. If you stop the run, they are going to throw it. So now you have to start picking up that end of the game. It's something we are working at and getting better at. But as a coach you never get better quick enough.

Q: This is the progression you wanted, right?

A: I would say I would hate to see guys be great pass rushers and not stop the run. To me we have stopped the run, now we have to get to the next gear. Once you stop and understand that basically a great pass rush is great unit work, not just single rushes, it's a whole deal — and that's what we are continually working at to get better.

Q: Any pleasant surprises along the line?

A: I think they have come in and taken to the schemes that (defensive coordinator) Willie Shaw has put in very well. I think they have bought into what we are trying to get done defensively, and I think they are continually working. Right now, I'm very, very happy working with this group because they are a group that works hard. They run to the ball well. Things that you normally have to coach, they have. We are trying to coach to get the next level in some of the stuff that makes them the top players, which is the single rushes, the stuff that puts them out there where ‘Yeah, that guy is a heck of a player. He can play both run and pass.' We have guys that play the run very well and some that play the pass well. We need to get everybody on the same page.

Q: Have you seen that progression? Are they close?

A: I think they are a lot more aware in their rush, what they are looking at. Close, I think only counts in horseshoes. The key thing is that they are working to get better and closing that pocket and understanding things they should do.

Q: Have you enjoyed coaching a particular position after being a head coach for so many years?

A: It's fun. I haven't coached a position in a lot of years now. I enjoy the group, I enjoy coaching the group and, of course, you enjoy seeing productivity. That's the whole purpose of coaching. We are getting better. You never get better as quick as you want for a coach, but I do see progress as far as them taking coaching and utilizing it on the field.

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