EAGAN, Minn. – Coaches and players alike know that training camp can be a grind, but Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano is looking forward to kicking it off.
Sparano recently reflected on the end of the minicamp and the different opportunities that will accompany the opening of Verizon Vikings Training Camp, which starts on July 25.
Organized team activity and minicamp practices offered Sparano a look at the linemen through position drills and against Minnesota's defense in team periods, but he hasn't yet been able to evaluate the players in a 1-on-1 scenario against the defensive linemen.
"With the rules being the way they are now … the first time you ever get a chance to put your hands on somebody is in a team period, but not in a 1-on-1 period where you can coach the fundamentals," Sparano explained. "That's the thing you look forward to in training camp – when you can spend the time and get the player on camera individually and really break it down that way."
Training camp also will give Sparano, along with assistant offensive line coach Andrew Janocko, additional looks at different line combinations.
Because Pat Elflein was a non-participant due to injury this spring, Sparano and Janocko moved pieces around. Sparano pointed out that, while the ideal scenario is getting Elflein back in the mix at center, he appreciated the chance to see new faces in with the first team during practice.
Nick Easton slid from left guard to center in Elflein's absence, giving Danny Isidora and Tom Compton reps at guard. In testing who best fills the shoes of former right guard Joe Berger, who retired in March, Sparano also moved Mike Remmers from tackle to guard and inserted Rashod Hill at the right tackle position, bookending with left tackle Riley Reiff.
"This is something that I've just always been a big believer of – even if the pieces are all set, you need to shuffle the deck once in a while just so that you're prepared for some of these things that pop up along the way, that are not really in a crystal ball but end up there," Sparano said.
The position coach added that he's "moving the pieces constantly" because several of the linemen can play more than one position.
"We need to find out first of all what they major in, but at the end of the day, flexibility is critical at our position," Sparano said. "Every year it's been needed; I think in three different ball games last year, I got to my fifth guy. You're only taking seven guys to the game, and you're playing five, so that combination can change mid-stream."
It isn't uncommon, either, to see Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer sidle up beside the offensive line group at practice – or step into a meeting room – and offer his take.
Zimmer's background and ensuing reputation is that of a defensive guru, to be sure. But he also is intentional about being involved offensively. Compton learned quickly that Zimmer is "not afraid to coach the offense up."
"He'll come over and tell us stuff from a defensive perspective that really helps us out that we might not be thinking about – us getting to the ball fast sets the tone, and the defense has to respond to that," Compton told Vikings.com during OTAs. "He definitely has a lot of wisdom when it comes to that."
Remmers echoed Compton, expressing gratefulness for the perspective Zimmer brings to the table.
Isidora said that Zimmer in 2017 helped the offensive line see things "in a whole new way," and Easton added that simply practicing against Zimmer's defense makes the unit better.
"The looks we get in practice are oftentimes harder than anything we see in the game," Easton said. "So if you can make it through a practice against our defense, the games [can] feel pretty easy."
Ask any of Minnesota's offensive linemen, and they'll tell you they're glad to share a practice field with the Vikings D-line rather than looking across at the unit on game day.
Hill emphasized the challenge of facing guys like Everson Griffen or Linval Joseph, the latter of whom he called "a man beyond boys."
"If you [face] him, you're not going to go 1-on-1 with him. You're going to have help every time," Hill said. "I think it was [during training camp] last year, I was filling in for Riley, and I came down [the line]. Linval hit me with a club – POP!"
Added Hill with a laugh: "I said, 'Oh yeah, I felt that.' "
While going against the NFL's No. 1 overall defense is certainly a tall order, Sparano emphasized the approach he wants his players to have – that it's a tough task, but one they're up to. When Sparano started with the Vikings in 2016, he looked for an attitude of "give and take" – that there's an expectation from his players to beat their opponent at practice, top defense or not.
"Some days the defense is going to have a heck of a day, and they're going to win, and sometimes the offense is going to have a heck of a day," Sparano said. "And that has to happen in your fronts – your fronts have to challenge each other in order for you to be a good football team.
"Us getting a chance to play against them every day, you know, Riley Reiff has gotten a chance to play against a different player than he normally does – because usually it's Griff, and now it's been Danielle, [who] brings a different set of skills to the table than Griff has, and that's been good for him," Sparano continued. "And getting Sheldon [Richardson] as a new player, that's been really good for our guys."
Hunter filled in for Griffen, who was limited during the offseason program.
Looking ahead to training camp and the start of the 2018 season, Sparano wants not only a bolstered offensive line but an even stronger Minnesota Vikings team.
"We're playing against a good group of guys that are really deep, and that makes us better," Sparano said. "But we push them a little bit, and I think that makes the football team [improve bit by bit]."