Hicks' versatility gets tested

Vikings offensive lineman Artis Hicks had his position flexibility tested Sunday as injuries cropped up along the offensive line. His versatility has proved extremely valuable to the Vikings, and he talked about the different techniques and timing required, depending on where he is playing.

One of the mantras of the Brad Childress/Rick Spielman era with the Vikings has been an emphasis on a certain type of player. Among the attributes admired most are players with position flexibility – those who can provide help at more than one spot. Percy Harvin, for example, has position flexibility in that he can be a starting wide receiver on the outside, a third receiver in the slot, a part-time running back and a return specialist.

However, perhaps the player who exemplifies position flexibility as much as any player on the roster is offensive lineman Artis Hicks. When he arrived in Minnesota in 2006, he started 14 games at right guard and four more in 2007 before being replaced by Anthony Herrera. In 2008, he started six games at tackle – four at left tackle for the suspended Bryant McKinnie and two at right tackle in place of a struggling Ryan Cook.

For the last two games, Hicks has started at right guard in place of Herrera, who was sidelined with post-concussion symptoms. However, when McKinnie went down with an ankle injury against the Cardinals, Hicks was shifted over to left tackle. Fortunately for the Vikings, the Cardinals offense milked more than seven minutes off the clock on their next drive – giving McKinnie a chance to assess his injury and return to the game.

When asked if versatility is his calling card, Hicks was quick to say it is what has made him an important piece of the Vikings offensive line and it was that versatility that gave the coaching staff the ability to move him around the line with little to no advanced warning.
"That's exactly what it is," Hicks said. "I've done it before, so I was somewhat used to it already. It wasn't a big issue, because, as it turned out, it was only for one play and went right back. In that instance, it wasn't that tough of a deal."

While some might think that all offensive linemen do is lock up and maul defenders, there is a lot more that goes into it. Different plays call for different assignments and responsibilities for each line position. When linemen like McKinnie and left guard Steve Hutchinson watch film and go through game preparation, their focus can be entirely on one spot. As Hicks prepares weekly for an opponent, he has to do the study work for all four non-center line spots.

"Every week I have to learn what both tackles and both guards are doing," Hicks said. "If something happens and I'm not in the game, I have to be prepared at four of the five (offensive line) spots. Even if I'm in the game, I might have to bump out from guard to tackle, tackle to guard or right side to left side. I have to know what's going on at a lot of different places."

Over the years, he has been able to develop a shorthand with how the different positions operate. In some cases, the difference between playing left tackle and right tackle is little more than having a mirror image – a left tackle moves left when a defensive end comes on a looping bull rush and a right tackle moves right. However, there are times when he has to do a lot of homework on "specialty plays" – reverses, misdirection and the like – in which each linemen has a different and distinct assignment.

"A lot of it is interchangeable," Hicks said. "It's just a matter of flipping it in your mind – whether I'm on the right side or the left side. But there are some specialty plays where you have to know the different responsibilities of each position. I've been doing it for a few years now, so it's not that challenging. But when you have those specialty plays, you have to make sure you're taking notes as to what will be happening at the different line spots and what you're responsibility will be at each of them on those plays."

Hicks said his unique role on the team is one that is shared league wide by many teams. Players earn a reputation as being someone that can be plugged in at multiple positions and not bring a drop-off in talent or production. It takes a special player to handle such a role, since, by the time the coach calls your number, you have to be ready on a moment's notice to play a position that needs filling. He said it's not a role for everyone.

"I think it takes a guy who is experienced," Hicks said. "Moving from tackle to guard, the sets are different and the footwork is different. In pass protection, for example, inside at guard you have a three-technique guy who is right on top of you. At tackle, the end is out there in space and you have to know how to set different and the timing of your hands is different."

With Herrera expected back this week and McKinnie and possibly rookie Phil Loadholt also expected to be back in the starting lineup after sustaining injuries during last week's game with Arizona, Hicks is expected to return to his spot on the sidelines. But he knows at any instant, if the medical staff goes running out onto the field, he might get the call to duty. It isn't glamorous. It doesn't get him a lot of media attention, but it makes him one of the most valuable unsung Vikings on the roster – even though it is in a role that few players likely aspire to.

"I'm not sure it's something a player coming into the league says he wants to do – be able to play four different positions," Hicks said. "Most guys want to learn one position and do their very best at playing that position. But, for me, being able to help the team wherever I can is what is important. If that means playing guard, playing tackle, starting, coming off the bench, you name it. I'm ready for it and just looking to help our team win however I can."

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