EAGAN, Minn. — Rick Dennison is the man in charge of perhaps the most critical position group for the Vikings heading into the 2019 season.
With training camp drawing near, the Vikings first-year offensive line coach/run game coordinator is tasked with leading a unit that struggled in 2018, and also features starters in three new spots heading into 2019.
As he enters his first season with the Vikings, Dennison is embracing the challenge of helping improve the offensive line.
“I love it. I like the energy the guys have,” Dennison said. “They all want to learn, they’re very eager to go out and do what they’re told, they practice hard, try to get better every day, so that’s been good.
“The building’s been really good. Everybody’s very helpful,” Dennison added.
While Dennison is new to Minnesota, he is a familiar face to some of his colleagues on the coaching staff, namely Gary Kubiak, who the Vikings assistant head coach/offensive advisor.
The duo have worked together as coaches for a total of 15 seasons. Dennison has also worked with new tight ends coach Brian Pariani and quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak.
Here is a quick bio on Dennison:
— He has served as an offensive coordinator four times for three different teams: the Broncos (2006-08 and 2015-16), the Texans (2010-13) and the Bills (2017). Dennison was the Jets offensive line/run game coordinator in 2018 and was the Ravens quarterbacks coach in 2014.
— Dennison earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Colorado State University. He played tight end and wide receiver for the Rams in 1976, 1978 and 1979.
— Dennison has won three rings as a coach, all with the Broncos. He was Denver’s special teams coordinator when the Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII, and was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl 50 victory.
— He played nine seasons in the NFL for Denver from 1982-90, starting 52 of 128 games played. He recorded four interceptions, five fumble recoveries and 6.5 sacks.
Dennison’s group currently features 15 players ranging from veterans such as left tackle Riley Reiff and right guard Josh Kline, plus rookie first-round center Garrett Bradbury.
Based on how the Vikings lined up during spring practices, the first-team offensive line is expected to be Reiff, left guard Pat Elflein, Bradbury, Kline and right tackle Brian O’Neill when training camp opens.
Kline is new to the team after spending the previous three seasons in Tennessee.
“You know, Josh has played in the league, he’s played a lot of good football, and he can do what we do,” Dennison said. “After watching him and he became available, we were fortunate to get him in the fold.”
Bradbury is also new, and his arrival this spring shifted Elflein to left guard.
Elflein had been Minnesota’s starting center the past two seasons, but the chance to have a pair of Rimington Trophy winners (an award given to college football’s best center that Elflein won in 2016 and Bradbury won in 2018) was too good to pass up.
“Basically, what you’re trying to do is make sure you’ve got a lot of good football players on your team, regardless of where you put them, and just knowing that you have some flexibility,” Dennison said. “Just taking a look at the film and comparing to other people who were at that slot, we thought [Bradbury] would be a great addition and figure we can make it work out of that.
“We know we’re going to get a good football player and [knew] we had a good football player in Pat. So, two of them were going to be on the field somehow, some way, potentially, and we’ll work on it when we get there,” Dennison added. “Just having confidence that those two players could adjust and do them what we wanted them to do.”
As for the tackles, Reiff is entering his third season with the Vikings after being a free-agent addition from Detroit in the spring of 2017. O’Neill, meanwhile, was a second-round draft pick in 2018 who played in 15 games with 11 starts as a rookie.
Dennison said he counting on the pair to bookend the offensive line while also bringing toughness and leadership to the group.
“I start with, ‘Do they know what they’re doing?’ And both of them do,” Dennison said. “Both of them study, they play hard, they study hard and are professionals about getting it done.
“Riley’s played a lot of football. His experience, it’s vast, and you can’t replace it. He knows what – and I like to play with your body position, how that guy is on your body – he knows how to play his body on a defender. He knows what to do with that,” Dennison added. “So, he’s been great, and trying to teach him things that I have [that have] worked with others before and see what he likes, he’s done a great job over here, he and Pat together.
“And then certainly with Brian, you know, he’s very athletic, and he played well. The knock, ‘Well, he’s too light, not strong enough, not stout enough,’ but he’s really proven that to be wrong,” Dennison continued. “I think he’s done a great job, and again, just trying to get him to use his abilities to his utmost, just like Riley. You know, each player’s got different strengths and weaknesses, and we try to get them to exploit those strengths and work on the weaknesses.”
There is also plenty of depth behind the starters, as the rest of the offensive linemen include a mix of returners and fresh faces. Here is how the rest of the 10 players lined up during the spring.
Second-team, from left to right: Aviante Collins, Dakota Dozier, Brett Jones, Danny Isidora, Rashod Hill
Third-team, from left to right: Storm Norton, John Keenoy, Cornelius Edison, Dru Samia, Olisaemeka Udoh
Dennison is assisted by Andrew Janocko, who is in his fifth season in Minnesota. Janocko served as the Vikings co-assistant offensive line coach in 2018 after the tragic passing of Tony Sparano just before training camp.
“Obviously, the experience just around the players was invaluable when I first started, but Andrew’s a very smart guy,” Dennison said. “He’s a sponge for knowledge. You talk about technique, he’s all in. What have they done before? He’s been a great source.
“Because Tony, I had a lot of respect for Tony and his ability to coach, and [Andrew] was a sponge for knowledge from Tony,” Dennison added. “So I’m stealing some ideas from him as we go through, and it’s just been great for us to hash things back and forth. We watch practice together, we talk about what we’re going to try to do, how to get better in our drills each day.”