EAGAN, Minn. — Kyle Rudolph could see this coming back when Kevin Stefanski was the Vikings tight ends coach (2014-15).
Kirk Cousins remembers the impression that Stefanski made on him during the 2012 Senior Bowl when Stefanski was an assistant quarterbacks coach and the Vikings staff coached Cousins and other draft-eligible prospects for a week.
Dalvin Cook shared a much more recent anecdote of connecting with Stefanski during the new offensive coordinator’s interim role at the end of the 2018 season.
And Mike Zimmer explained Friday the most-recent example of how Stefanski impressed him.
“He is a bright, young coach. Very detailed,” Zimmer added before introducing Stefanski to members of the media for the first time as the offensive coordinator. “He has already given me a list of everything that we have to go over from now until training camp.”
The list was the most recent example of the ways that Stefanski has quietly impressed with his organization, attention to detail, preparedness and ability to communicate.
“I think one of the biggest things that always stood out to me in working with Kevin was how prepared he was on a weekly basis in making sure he provided us with every resource that we needed as players to be prepared to go out and win games on Sundays,” Rudolph reflected of the 2014-15 seasons when Stefanski led his position group in Zimmer’s first two years in Minnesota. “He did a phenomenal job, whether it was cut-ups, handouts, whatever we needed to feel like we were most prepared to go out and play our best on Sunday, he provided for us.”
In 2016, Stefanski shifted to running backs before moving to coach quarterbacks in 2017, a position he assisted with from 2009-13.
With three weeks left in the 2018 regular season and after back-to-back road losses in which Minnesota combined to score 17 points at New England and Seattle, Zimmer relieved John DeFilippo from the offensive coordinator post and elevated Stefanski.
It was quite the audition for the role, with Stefanski stepping in front of the entire offense for installation of the game plan and the oh-so important role of calling plays when the popcorn is popping.
“One of the things I knew he would do well was his command of the room,” Rudolph said. “Going from a position coach when you’re dealing with a couple of guys to when you’re in charge of the entire offense, you’re in charge of 35 guys and you’ve got to sit in front of a room and deliver for every offensive coach on the staff, every offensive player.
“That role is not too big for him,” Rudolph added. “It wasn’t in the three weeks that he took over as interim offensive coordinator, and you knew that, just because of how prepared he was as a position coach. It was always easy for Kevin, when he had his part of the game plan that he had to get up in front of the room and present, he was always confident in his preparation and work presentation, that you knew he was going to do it well when he had to do it full-time.”
Stefon Diggs hadn’t had Stefanski as a position coach, but he was impressed with the way that the 36-year-old handled the added role and his daily approach.
“He’s the same guy, you know what you’re going to get out of him, and he’s a guy you want to play for,” Diggs said. “He believes in his players. And he’s going to push you. He’s going to want the most out of you every day, and when it’s time to make plays, he’s going to let his playmakers just play.”
That brings us back to Cook, who has dazzled at multiple times and dealt with injuries in his first two seasons. Cook’s rookie campaign ended in Week 4 of 2017 when he tore his ACL.
He had 95 and 90 yards from scrimmage in the first two weeks of 2018 but suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2 at Green Bay. Cook missed five of the next six games before ripping off a career-best 70-yarder against Detroit in Week 9.
Cook had 12 rushing yards on nine carries the following game at Chicago and 29 on 10 attempts against the Packers in November. He averaged 9.3 yards per carry against New England, racking up 84 yards on just nine rushes.
Zimmer was asked if the Vikings ran the ball enough against the Patriots and said, “No.”
Needless to say, when Stefanski was preparing for his first game as interim offensive coordinator, he placed an emphasis on getting the run game going against a Dolphins approach that offered opportunities to capitalize. Stefanski let Cook know he’d have a good chance against his hometown team.
“He came to me and said, ‘We’re going to get you the ball. Make a play,’ ” Cook said. “When your coach looks at you and tells you that, you’re going to go out and give 110 percent and run through a wall or something. He’ll come to certain guys and say, ‘We’re going to come to you this drive, so make a play.’ I love that and love our coaches getting me the ball and getting me the touches.”
Cook rushed 19 times for 136 yards, helping Minnesota total season highs of 40 carries and 220 yards.
“My goal to make sure our best players, our playmakers, are getting the ball to score a bunch of points,” Stefanski said Friday. “That is the goal. You score more than the other team and you get a W. It’s kind of simple as I look at it. When you pull it apart and you identify your guys — that is going to be our goal, play to our strengths.”
Cousins said this week he was “thrilled to hear that” Stefanski would be the new offensive coordinator.
“We feel like the continuity is very important, not only for me at the quarterback position but for our entire offense, for the young players learning the system and for our coaching staff to have the familiarity, as well,” Cousins said. “Kevin’s proven over many years in the Vikings facility that he’s a great coach, a great leader, carries himself well and is the right person to lead our offense going forward.
“I don’t know what the personality trait is, but when you carry yourself well and relate well to players, that’s a very valuable trait in a coach – and not every coach has that trait,” Cousins added. “I first met Kevin and saw that he had that trait back at the Senior Bowl in 2012, and ever since then I’ve really followed his path and really felt that he’d be a coach I’d enjoy working with because of the experience I had at the Senior Bowl, and I always felt like he was an up-and-coming coach in the league. I’m sure, I know that his interview with Cleveland [for a head coaching job] went as far as it did for good reason, and I think that he’ll have other opportunities like that in the future, especially if we as an offense are able to do the job we’re expecting to do this next fall.”
Stefanski said he wants to build relationships with every player on offense and take another step forward with Cousins.
“Kirk and I spent a year together just now. I got to know him a little bit more. He got to know me a little bit more,” Stefanski said. “That is something that we can build off of. Just like every player, and I texted a bunch of them these last few days, just like every player, I hope to develop a relationship with them and find out what we can get, how we can get the most out of each player.”
When asked what the Vikings might do at offensive line — where Clancy Barone and Andrew Janocko stepped up to co-coach after the tragic passing of Tony Sparano just two days before training camp opened — Stefanski deferred to Zimmer. He did add that he wants the entire offense to befit the NFC North.
“So we’re going to be a physical group,” Stefanski said. “Certainly when you talk about the offensive line and defensive line, it starts there. That’s kind of going to be our thing moving forward.
“I kind of go back to the style of offense that we play will vary by game, but at the end of the day we’ll make sure that this is a physical unit,” he added.
Stefanski is grateful for the continuity that he has with the Vikings that started back in 2006. He will have incredible familiarity with most of the roster as he and the staff build the foundation for 2019 and introduce it to players during OTAs.
Diggs said players will be ready for the message.
“Just like before – we had a hundred-percent confidence in him before when he got the job [on an interim basis], and it’s not going to change,” Diggs said. “Buying in won’t be hard because we’ve seen him do it, we’ve had him, and it’s going to be a good place just to get the ball rolling.”