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An Inside Job: Alex Boone


EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When the meetings were wrapped for the day, and the night snack was served, Vikings offensive linemen made time for one more huddle most nights in the dorm at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

The commitment to spadework by the Vikings offensive line each day at training camp gave way to another game.

A pack that tries to have five players function as one shifted to partnerships of two for games of Spades. The other linemen watched as thinking about cut blocks or protecting the pocket transitioned to cutting the deck and covering a partner forced to play an unfavorable hand.

No official stats were kept, but according to Alex Boone, the friendly competition wasn't close.

"I'm the best Spades player by far," Boone said. "I can kill anybody in Spades. I don't even need a good partner. I can carry the team, no question.

"There's a lot of respect out there that got taken," Boone added. "It's not my fault."

The sessions gave players a chance to do something together in an era that has become so consumed with technology on individual screens. A glance in the modern lobby in Julia Sears Residence Hall conjured images of Vikings Legends playing cards together in much more Spartan — and bygone — Gage Hall.

"It's much needed, especially in camp," Boone said. "You're meeting all day, and you just kind of laugh, have fun, relax, there's nothing to worry about. It was a lot of fun, as long as you play with good people."

Notice he said "good people," not people who are good at cards?

Boone will experience a flashback of his own in Sunday night's game when the Vikings host the 49ers, whom Boone first joined as an '09er on the practice squad. It took a bit of time, but Boone panned out in San Francisco, playing all 16 games in 2010 and becoming a starter in 2011. He totaled 59 starts in 77 regular-season games played and started six of eight playoff games with San Francisco, including Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 season.

Boone had been the one new addition (at right guard between center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis) in 2012 to a starting line from a team that went 13-3 in 2011.

That trio, along with left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati, started every game for a team that went 11-4-1 in 2012, and the five players combined for 76 out of a possible 80 starts in 2013 when the 49ers went 12-4.

In addition to continuity, the group had cohesion.

"That o-line was a special group," Boone recalled. "We had good guys on that line that had the right amount of toughness and the right amount of smarts and accountability.

"We kind of saw ourselves as one, and we looked out for each other. We didn't like it when anyone messed with Goody because he was kind of older, so we'd always do payback for him. Anthony was just a monster back then, and Joe and Mike played so well. We were accountable … and everybody understood and believed. No one wanted to be the weak link on that group, so it was a lot of fun."

Success wasn't immediate. It took quite a while and was hard to sustain. The 49ers experienced changes upfront and elsewhere and fell to 8-8 in 2014, 5-11 in 2015 and 2-14 in 2016, Boone's first season in Minnesota.

"My biggest takeaway [from San Francisco] is that hard work pays off," Boone said. "When I first got out there with [former 49ers Head Coach Mike] Singletary, he was a work monger. We'd go out every day, two-a-days, padded and we'd practice hard.

"I think that kind of built the foundation for [Jim] Harbaugh's team," Boone continued. "Jim just kind of knew how to translate it a little better. Jim was the same way [as Singletary]. Every day was padded, and we were out there to find the toughest guys."

Few offensive lines have experienced the hits that the Vikings endured in 2016. Five players suited up at left tackle, and Minnesota used eight different starting combinations. The Vikings never lined up the same five players three games in a row.

Minnesota invested considerable effort into rebuilding its offensive line by signing tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers when free agency opened, drafting interior linemen Pat Elflein and Danny Isidora and continuing to develop younger players.

Boone said this year's Vikings offensive line is showing signs of what made the group successful in San Francisco.

"It's just trying to bring it out of everybody," Boone said. "You need your tough guys on the line, you need your smart guys on the line and need your guys that are going to be accountable.

"I think this is probably one of the closer groups I've been with," Boone said. "Everyone kind of has everyone's back, and we all laugh together. I don't think there's anyone in the group that's not welcome. We do things as a group and always invite everybody to everything. I'm just happy. When you get a good group of guys like this, it's very rare, and I'm just enjoying it."

Asked to name the greatest competition for a position that he's ever seen, Boone said, "I like the center battle we have going on now."

Nick Easton, who started five of the 11 games he played for the Vikings in 2016, and Elflein have been competing with the first-team at center.

Easton is a Harvard grad from the foothills of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. He joined the NFL as an undrafted free agent with Baltimore and became a teammate of Boone's via a trade between the Ravens and the 49ers in 2015. They shared a locker room for just a month before Easton was acquired by the Vikings in another trade.

"I didn't know any different because I was a rookie, but it was nuts looking back at it," Easton said. "A lot of moving around, a lot of studying playbooks, a lot of flashcards.

"I moved everything (west)," Easton said. "I thought it was going to be a permanent stop."

Elflein's start to his pro career has been less hectic than Easton's, but the third-round pick didn't step right into a job either, in part because of Easton's competitive fire. The native of Pickerington, Ohio, starred at Ohio State, winning the Rimington Trophy in 2016 as the nation's top center. It was the only season Elflein played the position.

Elflein said he's learned a lot through the offseason program and training camp about "how to play at this level, the speed at this level."

"We have a really good defense, so going against that every day has really helped me step my game up," Elflein said. "It's just a whole new level to it."

He said playing with consistency is a "huge factor to offensive line play overall" and could help be a determining factor.

"Just being consistent every play, not just doing it well two plays and then bad one play," Elflein said. "You've got to do it every play. You want to do it over and over again."

And be prepared for unexpected situations.

When Boone was injured between the Bills game to open the preseason game and last week's contest against the Seahawks, the Vikings shifted Easton to left guard, and Elflein manned the middle with the first team.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Easton and Elflein "did pretty good" in Seattle, and he expects the line to be at full-strength against San Francisco.

Boone said his perspective on the competition between Easton and Elflein is a combination of the "outside looking in" and the "inside looking out."

"They're so similar and both such tough and nasty guys," Boone said. "It's going to be interesting to see how this one plays out. … They're both aggressive guys, and they kind of want to make a name for themselves, so it's fun to watch."

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