EAGAN, Minn. — One voice was noticeably absent Wednesday when Vikings offensive linemen stepped into the “chute,” but the message was still there.
Tony Sparano introduced the chute, a low-clearance rack that forces players to stay low when coming out of their stances, in 2016 after his hire as Minnesota’s offensive line coach.
The chute was implemented in Mankato for the past two training camps and again on Wednesday, the Vikings first training camp practice (for rookies and select veterans) at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
It also was the first session without Sparano, who unexpectedly passed away Sunday morning at age 56.
Still grieving, the young players he impacted in a short amount of time took to the field to begin honoring their coach’s memory.
Each towering at 6-foot-7, when Brian O’Neill, Storm Norton and Cedrick Lang approach the chute, the top of its “ceiling” hits between their chests and midsections. All lowered themselves for drills, surged forward instead of up when told to go and focused on maximizing the power generation in their hips while trying not to rattle the chute.
Tight ends coach Clancy Barone, who coached Denver’s offensive line from 2015-16, and assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko offered encouragement and constructive criticism as players cycled through, sometimes repeating to refine a motion or hand placement. Senior Offensive Assistant Todd Downing worked with tight ends.
O’Neill, the Vikings second-round selection from April, spoke with reporters after the practice, explaining his emotions and the impact that Sparano left.
“I think first and foremost, one of the things he would be encouraging us to do right now, we have to keep playing, we have to keep going,” O’Neill said. “He was an incredible coach, an incredible family man.”
O’Neill said he and 2018 sixth-round pick Colby Gossett concurred that they felt “like we know his children and his grandchildren well enough to call them by their first names because he talked about them so much and was so proud of them.”
“Before we get into anything, I just want to send our condolences out, from me to his family,” O’Neill added. “That being said, we do have a responsibility to him, to his family, to this organization and these fans to come out here and practice hard and be ready to play, no matter who the coach is. That’s something that he’d be proud of, that we’re going to keep that mindset going forward.”
O’Neill said players understand from Sparano the importance of improving something every day but not at the expense of regressing at another aspect. The former Pittsburgh Panther said players like Pat Elflein and Aviante Collins have relayed additional lessons from Sparano to younger players.
“Once you fix one thing one day, that has to stay the same the next day, but you have to get better at the next thing,” O’Neill said. “For him, it’s always stacking those pieces together. That’s something that he was always good at getting on our butts for, to be able to go in and work on something every single day.”
Elflein also involved
Elflein opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from an injury suffered in the NFC Championship Game. The center, however, got involved by helping newly signed rookie J.P. Quinn adjust on the fly.
“Pat’s out there, he’s all over J.P. Quinn, who got here about 12 hours ago, he’s all over me on these little details, details, details because it’s the same stuff the coach said,” O’Neill explained. “No matter who the voice is, the message still has to be the same.”
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman each held media sessions Wednesday to share their memories of Sparano. Each said they preferred not to address any potential staff changes at this time.
Zimmer also was asked for an update on how long Elflein might be on the PUP list.
“Until he gets healthy and the doctors say he can go,” Zimmer said. “He is getting better every day. It shouldn’t be too long.”
Quarterback Trevor Siemian was acquired from Denver this offseason and brought in as a backup for Kirk Cousins. Siemian, Cousins, Kyle Sloter and Peter Pujals all reported to camp Tuesday.
Siemian was drafted by the Broncos in 2015 and was able to get to know Barone quite well.
“Quarterbacks and o-line and those two coaches and those rooms interact a ton,” Siemian explained. “It was really important for them to be on the same page, so I was with Coach Barone a bunch and know he’s a great coach, communicates well with his players and guys respect the heck out of him.
“We’ve got a really good relationship,” Siemian added. “It’s kind of funny, he was one of the first guys I saw on my visit here, so he’s a heck of a coach.”