When the Vikings made John Sullivan their sixth round draft pick in 2008, there weren't too many people who expected he would be starting in 2009. After all, the team had perennial Pro Bowler Matt Birk and, although it was known that Birk was entering the final season of his contract, it was the conventional wisdom that the Vikings would re-sign Birk and the St. Paul native would finish his NFL career in a couple of years as a member of the Vikings.
That didn't happen. Birk is now plying his trade in Baltimore and Sullivan is the center of attention in the Vikings offense – a role Sullivan said he is prepared to take over, much the same way Birk did in his second season in 2000.
After Sunday's practice, Sullivan addressed some questions and a critique of his first NFL start. The coaching staff gave Sullivan and rookie right tackle Phil Loadholt extra work, letting both of them play the entire first half, while the rest of the starting offensive line saw its night end with the conclusion of the first quarter. Sullivan said both he and Loadholt were happy to get the extra work.
"As much time as I can get (on the field) right now is good," Sullivan said. "It's the preseason. Obviously, everybody knows what counts is your regular-season record, but it's still an important time to gain momentum and for me to gain experience."
Sullivan said he was pleased with the team's performance. While they only scored 13 points, the Vikings' first- and second-team offenses scored on three of the game's first four drives and, despite some mistakes in the red zone, dominated the tempo of the game.
"I thought the offense functioned really well," Sullivan said. "We put up 13 points in the first half. I thought we moved the ball really well. Obviously, when we get in the red zone, we have to put the ball in the end zone. You have to score seven points when you're down there. But I think the offense as a whole played really well."
Others watching the game film came away just as impressed. Coaches never like throwing first-time starters out on the field, because they're an unknown commodity. They may look great in practice but awful under the glare of the bright lights. Head coach Brad Childress said Sullivan passed his first test with flying colors.
"He did a good job," Childress said. "He did a good job of directing the show in the run game and the pass game. He certainly wasn't overmatched in any area."
Sullivan couldn't get away from the questions about the uncertainty of things during the time the Vikings were courting Brett Favre, but he insisted that the players didn't get into the hypothetical of adding a future Hall of Famer, but rather focused on what they had, which in his case was Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels.
The center has a keen insight into both quarterbacks. When Jackson was benched after the second game, he spent much of last season working second-team reps with Sullivan as his center. By the time Rosenfels came via trade with the Houston Texans, Sullivan was determined to be the starting center, so he naturally got a lot of work with Rosenfels. He said that familiarity with both has made his transition to the starting lineup that much easier.
"I'm very comfortable with both those guys," Sullivan said. "I played with Tarvaris a lot last year during 2008 OTAs and practice. As soon as Sage got here, we were working together. I'm comfortable with both of them. The entire team is comfortable with both of them being our quarterback and being our leader. Having two guys that go in there and get the job done, we're lucky to have that."
Sullivan was forced to address an issue that got the attention of fans back in Minnesota Friday night. During the local telecast, color commentator Mike Mayock said that Sullivan was so nervous prior to the game that he threw up on the way to the stadium. Sullivan vehemently denied vomiting, but said there were plenty of butterflies churning prior to game time. But he said once the action started, everything fell into place.
"I needed to get that first hit out of way – that was the main thing," Sullivan said. "Once you get that hit out of the way, you're back in your comfort zone and everything was good. Just getting the first start over with, I feel great now and confident heading into Friday's game."
Sullivan said he feels at home in the starting lineup and is appreciative of the faith the coaching staff has placed him. Will that translate into him playing longer than the rest of the starters in Friday's preseason home opener against Kansas City? If he has a vote, it will, but he said that's up to the position coaches and Childress. He was told in advance of his extended play last Friday, but hasn't been informed of anything special this week.
"I knew going into (the Colts game), that I would be playing the first half," Sullivan said. "I'm not sure what the plan is this week. We'll see on Friday night."
Center Sullivan passes first test
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