Center Sullivan: The smarts to start?

John Sullivan is preparing as if he'll be the Vikings' starting center in 2009 and he'll be relying on the mental aspects of the position a great deal. See what the presumed successor to Matt Birk had to say about the intelligence of playing the position and what head coach Brad Childress thinks of Sullivan.

Former Vikings defensive linemen Jim Marshall and Bob Lurtsema call the center position the "blood and guts" of an offense.

No doubt trying to hold off aggressive 340-pound nose tackles is a taxing physical chore, but second-year Vikings center John Sullivan is hoping his intelligence is just as much an asset for him as his physical dedication.

"The mental aspect is very important. The center has a lot of responsibility," Sullivan said. "You've got to make sure everybody is on the same page. The physical aspect is just as important. They go hand in hand. The more you work, the more you realize you'll never have everything figured out, but you've just got to keep going."

That's why Sullivan said he "never really left" the team's Winter Park practice facility. He was one of the first players back working out after the 2008 season ended with a playoff loss to Philadelphia. Sullivan said he was supposed to start watching film with offensive line coach Pat Morris immediately after conducting an interview with Viking Update last week. Up until then, his preparation for the season, which is still six months away, had been mostly physical.

Although Sullivan didn't play at all on offense during the 2008 regular season, he says his experience in the preseason will help him some.

"I think I can definitely make the transition this year. I think the preseason was great and it's great to have that experience actually playing in a live scenario. At the same time, even though I didn't play in the games this year I prepared every week as though I needed to play because when you're one of the 45 guys dressed, you're only one play away," he said. "I prepared for 17 games last year in the regular season and playoffs. The only thing was that I didn't get to play (on offense) in any of them. But I was ready and I feel like if I put the work in and ultimately earn the job that I'll definitely be prepared."

While he spent last year's offseason program trying to learn the basics of his responsibilities in the offense, he knew full well that six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk was the starter. Now that Birk signed a contract with the Baltimore Ravens, Sullivan is the leading candidate to become the starter, which entails making the calls for the offensive line. That's why the mental part is so important to the position.

"John Sullivan is a guy that football is important to. He's a smart guy," head coach Brad Childress said at the NFL Scouting Combine last month. "… He's got football IQ and he wants to be good and he talks it, and Matt has been very giving in terms of not sweating him, just sharing."

It is often mentioned that Birk went to Harvard, but Sullivan is no academic slouch either. He is credited with a 3.5 grade-point average in his final semester of undergraduate work at Notre Dame, where he graduated with a degree in marketing in 2007 and played his final season while taking graduate courses.

"I think it's important to be intelligent. Going to school at Notre Dame is great, but I think playing in the football program there is what makes the difference and what's given me the head start," he said. "I played a very complex offense with Charlie Weis and I think that prepared me very well for the NFL. I think since I've been here I've benefitted greatly from playing for him at Notre Dame."

The biggest transition from successful player to Notre Dame to what he hopes will be a successful career in the NFL is just becoming an independent grown-up with bills to pay and "all the adult stuff that goes along with being out on your own," he said. "That's the main difference to me. The football changes a little bit, but ultimately it's still the same game."

So it might be a blessing that he got to watch and learn from the sidelines last year when the Vikings were on offense.

"It depends. You see positives both ways. Some guys come in right away and they have great success. Look what Matt Ryan did down in Atlanta this year. At the same time, I don't think it's ever a bad thing to learn and to learn from guys that are doing it and try to emulate them," he said. "That's the situation I had with Matt. I was trying to learn as much as I could from him. I still talk to Matt and we still have a great relationship and I try to get advice from him and ask him different questions. So I think sitting back for a year will ultimately benefit me."

Although he never played on offense in his rookie season, Sullivan did see action on special teams in every game. He said that just helped him prepare every week and learn his blocking assignments and how that correlated to the kick returners. He even said he tried to pick up tells from kickers.

But all of that mental preparation doesn't automatically put him in the starting role. He has no idea who his competition will be – it could be Ryan Cook moving from tackle to center, Anthony Herrera moving from guard to center or any rookie or veteran yet to sign with the team.

"I have no idea about that. Competition is what's best for the team, so I welcome all of it. I'm willing to work as hard, if not harder, than anyone else and I'm sure there will be competition. At the same time, that's a decision for the coaches and the front office to make and not my place to even speculate on," he said. "I haven't spoken at length with any of them yet about that. I feel like I'm in a great position, but ultimately we'll see and that question will be answered when OTAs and then training camp come around and then it will really be answered in the first week of the season."

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