John Sullivan stopped short of saying he would be the Vikings' starting center in 2009, but he didn't hesitate to give his mentor Matt Birk credit for helping him progress in Sullivan's rookie year.
Sullivan was a sixth-round draft pick for the Vikings last year, but he is expected to be the favorite, at least for now, to take over for Birk, who signed a three-year free-agent deal with the Baltimore Ravens last week.
Sullivan admits that he was watching the Vikings' negotiations with Birk and his free-agent visit to Baltimore with interest. However, the second-year player tried to not let the business side of football affect his work routine.
"I was keeping my eye on it, but I still took the same approach that I'm taking now. I came into workouts. I continued to work hard because even if Matt had come back, you're still only one play away," Sullivan said. "So you've always got to be prepared like you've got to be the guy, no matter who you play. If you're dressed on Sunday, you're very close to being in the game, so you've got to be ready."
Preparation and dedication don't seem to be an issue with Sullivan, according to head coach Brad Childress.
"He's the first guy that has been back in the building," Childress said at the NFL Scouting Combine last month. "I don't know if he got bored in Connecticut or what. I looked up one day and he's on the treadmill. I go, ‘What the hell are you doing in here?' And he's been there all the time since then."
Sullivan said he learned both mental and physical lessons from Birk, a six-time Pro Bowl player who is entering his 12th season in the league.
"I think one of the main things I learned from him is his preparation. He was a very diligent worker in making sure he had seen all the looks that he was going to see in the game and getting everybody on the same page. It really all starts with him in terms of the offensive line protecting the quarterback, which is very important," Sullivan said. "There are always examples of physical things – how is my footwork, am I throwing my punches at the right time, am I putting my hands in the right place is what I'd ask him. I would see him do something and I would ask why, and he would always be very forthright and give me a good answer and try to help me along to become a better player. I can't thank Matt enough for what he did while we were playing here together. We had a great relationship when we were together and still do, still talk."
It wasn't easy putting Birk's free-agent possibilities out of Sullivan's mind, but he didn't want to let the hypothetical possibilities affect his own preparation
"I definitely played all the scenarios out, but I just think I was going to be out here in the offseason anyway because I make Minnesota my home, so why not stay in shape?" Sullivan said. "I haven't been trying to make massive gains the whole offseason because that's not smart. It's a long process. I've also been trying to not get out of shape and I've been pretty good about that."
Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said the team will miss Birk, but he credited Sullivan with having the intelligence and dedication for the position.
"It hurt a little bit," Jackson said of losing Birk on Sirius NFL Radio. "Honestly, Matt helped me out a whole lot because he's such a smart dude and he helped our offensive line out. Him and (Steve) Hutchinson were the guys that kept our offense going, kind of more the spokesmen of our offense. Birk took a lot of pressure off me as far as making calls because he pretty much made all the calls and stuff like that as far as the offensive line goes.
"So it's going to hurt, but we've got Sullivan. He's a smart dude also and he works hard day in and day out. I sat and watched him last year throughout the whole season work day in and day out and make the calls, even when he was on the sideline he's making the calls in his head. We did scout team stuff together. He wanted to make stuff as close as possible to our stuff so he could work on his game. I'm just excited to see how far he's come along from last year to this year and to see him progress."
Sullivan credits Birk for mentoring
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