The Vikings offensive line has undergone a major transition over the past few years. That’s what happens when you have to say goodbye to longtime starters in Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie. A combined 24 years of experience starting for the purple between those three. But lately there has been some positive things happening in the drafting of left tackle Matt Kalil as the 4th overall pick last year, Phil Loadholt showing some promise as a road-grating right tackle, Charlie Johnson sliding into his more natural position of guard and John Sullivan’s emergence at center to the point he was given an extension season locking him up as the ball snapper until 2016.
As most know, Sullivan wasn’t the greatest replacement for Birk in his first few years. He was a 6th round pick who had a rough final year at Notre Dame, had physical skills that weren’t quite up to par and spent the majority of his first year in the NFL rehabbing from injury getting acquainted to the league. He was smart at the line leading the team into formation and rarely drew penalties, but too often was overpowered by bigger defensive tackles. Then something changed last year. He was fully healthy going into the season with a significant amount of lower body, further honed his technical blocking skills and showed leadership even though the team was 3-13. For the record, he finished last season as the #2 rated center by ProFootballFocus.com in 2011.
Looking at Fusco early on its fair to wonder if the team has found another interior lineman that, with some luck, is around for a while playing at a high level. Like Sullivan, he was 6th round pick out of Slippery Rock who was a good technician that was cognizant of hand placement and did a good job of staying with his blocks. However he wasn’t viewed as a strong player and didn’t face the finest of competition at the NCAA Division II level. Going into this season Fusco essentially won the starting right job guard by default with newly signed Geoff Schwartz missing nearly all of the preseason with a sports hernia surgery. So far the results are extremely positive. Against Jacksonville, Fusco did allow two pressures and was just okay on passing plays. However in the run game he was an absolute beast paving the way for a great comeback game from Adrian Peterson. His main assignment in D’Anthony Smith finished the game with only one tackle. The performance was so good that Fusco finished week one as the second best overall guard by Pro Football Focus. Only Cincinnati’s Clint Boling scored higher.
In closing, a one game sample size is obviously too small and you can expect growing pains out of a first year starter. Then again, the rebuilt offensive line is a major storyline this season and Fusco has added some positive fuel early on.
Jon Merckle may be followed on Twitter @thevikingpig