EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Though the Minnesota Vikings have used either a first or second round pick on an offensive lineman in the last three drafts, they’re hardly settled up front.
Not since 2014, head coach Mike Zimmer’s first season with the team, have the Vikings opened with the same starting five as the year before.
There’s no better guide, though, particularly during this pandemic that kept the group from developing any on-field chemistry until training camp began about a month ago, than the only person on staff with a master’s degree in fluid mechanics: Rick Dennison.
“The way he coaches us, not only in the classroom but out on the field, it’s been amazing, actually,” left tackle Riley Reiff said. “I really enjoy being in the room with him, and he makes learning easy.”
Dennison was hired last year at the insistence of Gary Kubiak, who came as a senior adviser and was promoted this season to offensive coordinator. Kubiak, Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani were all longtime colleagues in Denver, where Dennison also played nine years as a linebacker. He went to three Super Bowls with the Broncos before retiring after the 1990 season.
Dennison planned on putting his Colorado State degrees to use in the real world, with a focus on air pollution control. He got back into the game as a high school coach for three years, and then when Mike Shanahan was assembling his first staff in Denver he persuaded Dennison to return to the NFL life and join him. His friendship with Kubiak, first forged in 1983 as Broncos teammates, only deepened as they developed the zone blocking scheme they’ve since implemented in Minnesota.
Dennison has been an offensive coordinator for 10 of his 26 years coaching in the league, mostly as an offensive line coach. Zimmer included running game coordinator in his title. From Reiff to right tackle Brian O’Neill, the Vikings have raved about the 62-year-old Dennison’s ability to conceptually teach the system and calmly try to bring out the best in the players responsible for one of the most important yet thankless tasks in sport.
“If you can’t run the ball in this offense, then we’re not going anywhere. The run’s first, and everything comes off that – it always has – and Rick’s definitely heavily involved in everything that we do,” Pariani said.
Center Garrett Bradbury, the first-round draft pick in 2019, has made the most progress, Dennison said. Pat Elflein is the new right guard, replacing Josh Kline after manning the opposite side last season. Dakota Dozier leads Aviante Collins in the competition at left guard. Rookie Ezra Cleveland, the second-rounder from Boise State, has worked at guard and tackle.
“Everybody’s trained hard. They know what to expect,” Dennison said. “Obviously we have to go out and perform, but I think we’ll take a good step.’’
Dennison has instilled such confidence in the players he’s guiding.
“He has faith in his players, and he never gives up on you. He’s going to be on your butt, make sure he harps on the smallest little details, because he wants you to be perfect,” Collins said. “We know that there’s no such thing as a perfect person. There’s no such thing as a perfect play and a perfect game, but he strives for perfection knowing that’s where he wants you to be at.”
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL