One of the major concerns heading into the 2009 season for the Vikings was a significant change on the offensive line. Matt Birk left via free agency and right tackle was a problem area for much of 2008, with Ryan Cook being pulled from the starting lineup midway through the season.
The Vikings were confident that they had the center position covered with second-year man John Sullivan, but right tackle was another question. The team resisted the temptation to move up in the 2009 draft, bided their time and got the man they wanted in massive 6-8 tackle Phil Loadholt from Oklahoma.
The drafting of Loadholt gave the Vikings as big a pair of bookend offensive tackles as there are in the league, as Loadholt joined fellow 6-8 behemoth Bryant McKinnie as the pillars to Vikings offensive front wall.
McKinnie, who has taken on a leadership role with the team in the past few years, made it a point to mentor Loadholt. He worked with him individually and imparted a lot of the knowledge he has learned over seven-plus NFL seasons. The work has paid dividends primarily because you rarely hear Loadholt's named announced on game telecasts – in the world of the offensive lineman, being anonymous is a sign that you're doing your job right.
Loadholt knew he was going to get every opportunity to win the starting right tackle job and potentially hold down the fort on the right side of the line for years to come. He said the immediate offer of assistance and mentorship from McKinnie has helped his transition to the pro game.
"He's helped me out a lot," Loadholt said of McKinnie. "Ever since I got here, he's pretty much taken me under his wing and taught me what is expected to be a tackle in this league and playing at our size. He's taught me a lot of things about leverage and dealing with defensive ends. It's helped me a lot."
The mutual admiration goes both ways. McKinnie has been happy to impart his wisdom and experience to Loadholt for a number of reasons. However, the underlying reason is that he never had a linemate step up to offer him the same kind of assistance. Nobody else on the Vikings offensive line at the time was nearly as tall and thickly built as McKinnie, so many of their techniques didn't translate to his game. In fact, most of his learning of the pro game came from a defensive teammate, not one of his fellow offensive linemen.
"It's meant a lot to me, because when I got here, I felt like I didn't have anybody that could relate to me," McKinnie said. "I was different. I'm 6-8 and there was nobody else on the line that was close to my size. Nobody took the time to show what I needed to do. I actually had to get a defensive player – Chris Hovan – to help me learn what I needed to do and work with my hands. I was stuck in the college mentality of football. It feels good to teach someone something I had to learn on my own."
At the midway point of the season, Loadholt has been one of the many pleasant surprises of the 2009 season. He has not only anchored down his position, but has consistently graded out high. Loadholt said he is pleased with the progress he has made in a short period of time, but acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be done in that regard.
"I think I've come along way from the preseason to now," Loadholt said. "But I know I still have a long way to go. I have a pretty good grip on the offense, but the playbook keeps expanding. I feel like I've been playing pretty well, but I need to get better the second half of the season."
As much as the student has improved from learning on one of the game's top offenses, McKinnie has found a solid measure of satisfaction in helping in that process. As good as Loadholt has proved to be in his NFL infancy, McKinnie said the two of them look to only get better as time goes by.
"He's improved a lot," McKinnie said. "He's a hard learner and picks up things quick. He doesn't make the mistakes now that he made early on. Once he figures out what he's doing that is wrong, he corrects and quits making that mistake. That's what makes players better and I see nothing but improvement for him in the future. He's going to be very good in this league."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
McKinnie finds joy in mentoring Loadholt
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