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Rick Dennison's Unique Teaching Style Enlightens O-Linemen

EAGAN, Minn. — At some point this season, Rick Dennison will gather Minnesota's group of offensive linemen for a game of $100,000 Pyramid.

The popular television game show features one person giving a series of clues while their partner tries to guess the topic, with the difficulty getting harder as you go through the six categories.

While Dennison won't have his players try to guess anything about animals, cars or things that fly, he'll use the game as a way to quiz his players about technique, footwork or the upcoming opponent.

It's a method Dennison has used with previous teams, but he hasn't revealed it here because the Vikings aren't in the thick of the regular season yet.

"Don't ruin my thunder now," Dennison joked with a laugh. "We were in preseason [so I haven't done that yet.]"

The Vikings first-year offensive line coach/run game coordinator explained his reasoning for using the unique teaching methods with his players.

"You're working with things that apply to the game plan," Dennison said of the game. "Just trying to open their minds and think about how to attack in different ways. The questions are based on the game plan, and it usually makes it a little bit more fun. Usually the winners get some sort of prize like a pizza or something."

"My history is you try to present material in different ways because everybody learns just a little bit different. We spend the whole first part of the week watching film and showing them the drawings," Dennison added. "Then you go out and practice and show them what to do. But by the end of the week, to keep it fresh, you present it in a different way."

Vikings offensive lineman Dakota Dozier was with Dennison at the Jets in 2018 and said Dennison is known to find distinctive ways to reach his players.

"He really loves trivia and strategy," Dozier said. "[The $100,000 Pyramid] was all about plays.

"He's seriously smart, but he also knows there's a time to be light about some things and have an opportunity to use that to help you with your plays," Dozier added.

As the Vikings get set to kick off the 2019 season, the spotlight will be on the offensive line, one of the most scrutinized position groups over the past few seasons.

Of the nine offensive linemen currently on the Vikings roster, five are new faces, including a trio of rookies in center Garrett Bradbury, guard Dru Samia and tackle Olisaemeka Udoh.

Minnesota will also feature new starters in three spots, with Pat Elflein at left guard, Bradbury at center and free-agent signing Josh Kline at right guard. Tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O'Neill combined for 24 total starts on the outside in 2018.

Dennison likes his group as they prepare for the journey that lies ahead in 2019.

"They play hard, and they're anxious to learn," Dennison said. "They want to do it right. They working really well together.

"There always is [a different vibe] when you're playing regular-season games," Dennison added. "The speed picks up from preseason, and everybody knows you're going to be in the game for as long as it takes. We're playing for real."

And Dennison's players have an immense respect for him, something that becomes obvious when one spends a few minutes asking about their position coach.

"All my coaches I've ever had have been cuss-at-you-for-no-reason type coaches, so it feels like I'm being treated like a man for the first time," Samia said. "He has a little bit more laid-back attitude than coaches I've had before.

"You just respect him. The worst situation you can be in is having a coach where you don't think they know what they're talking about," Samia added. "But that's not the case with Coach Rico. He knows exactly what's going on, and it makes you trust him and respect him."

Added Elflein: "He's a very articulate teacher. But he's someone you want to play for. He builds relationships with you and is someone I think everyone in the room really enjoys being around. That's what makes him special."

Said tackle Rashod Hill: "He's a down-to-earth guy. When it's time to go, it's time to go. And when it's time to have fun, he has fun."

That includes a variety of jokes and zingers that Dennison likes to use in meetings as a way to get his players to relax.

Hill quipped that because of Dennison's smarts — he has an engineering background and wrote his Master's thesis in college on fluid mechanics — sometimes the jokes take a second to register.

But no matter the method Dennison uses to teach his players, his strong coaching resumé backs it up.

Dennison is a three-time Super Bowl champion, as he was Denver's special teams coordinator when the Broncos won back-to-back Lombardi Trophies over the Packers (XXXII) and Falcons (XXXIII). Dennison returned to Denver as offensive coordinator in 2015, and the Broncos went on to defeat the Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50.

"He's been around a long time," Hill said. "A coach like that, he's got credentials, so you can't do nothing but respect it.

"Me and him always talk about small details," Hill added. "Everybody has got good players, but the details are what matters. He's always preaching that — the right step, the right hand, punching, footwork."

Dennison credits his attention to detail to his engineering background.

"That's just the way I was kind of taught to coach. It's a detail-oriented thing," Dennison said. "You try and present it and make sure you're detailed so that the player is detailed when they hear it."

"We've all got talent, and we'll all get a chance to meet," Dennison added. "As long as we're working our detail the best we can, that gives us a better chance to win."

Dennison's preparation and mindset seemingly never stop, as evident by his post-practice habits.

By the time players have changed, showered and arrived for a position meeting, Dennison has already made up a written report for each player that describes what went well and what didn't in the most-recent practice, often within an hour of the session.

"He watches everything," Hill said. "What I like about him is that we'll get done with practice, but he's so into it, that in an hour, he'll have written down everything that we did today at practice on a sheet [for each player].

"Like, everyone's position and what they did and did wrong," Hill added. "I love that. You get to see that 1-on-1 before we even put the film on."

Dennison explained it's "just the corrections."

"We watch film as a group, and I detail what you did right, this is a good job here, a bad job here, we need to fix this," Dennison said "Just each play, so they have something in front of them that's black and white and [they know] this is exactly what I need to do."

The Vikings endured a chaotic 2018 season along the line, a campaign that began with the tragic passing of offensive line coach Tony Sparano just days before training camp.

Inconsistent play and injuries — Minnesota started six different combinations along the line — led the Vikings to finish 30th with 93.3 rushing yards per game. Minnesota also allowed 40 sacks.

Hill said recently that Dennison sometimes reminds him of Sparano because of his passion for the details.

Dennison, though, is trying to be his own person and help lift a unit that could have a big say in how far the Vikings go as a team in 2019.

"That's just me. I learned a long time ago that you just have to be you," Dennison said. "I'm not somebody else. I'm who I am … just kid them a little bit and then correct them when I need to.

"But I'm always out there thinking and figuring it out of how to get them to do it right," Dennison added.