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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Notebook: ‘Back at home,’ Brandon Fusco wants to prove himself again at right guard

By Andrew Krammer

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Too often last season, guard Brandon Fusco hit the turf. Whether by slip, trip or the force of an opposing defensive lineman, Fusco didn’t always stay upright and so neither did Teddy Bridgewater nor Adrian Peterson.

As the Vikings’ most important overhaul of the offseason is in full swing, Fusco is one player of which you shouldn’t lose track. His one-year experiment at left guard is over with a return to right guard. Fusco has practiced with the first-team offense in each of the two Organized Team Activity sessions open to the media. They wrapped the fifth of 10 such voluntary practices on Wednesday.

“I feel like I’m back at home, just have to show the coaches,” Fusco said. “I know it’s a big competition now with me and Mike [Harris]. Across the board, everyone is in a competition. It’s going to make us all better. Just have to improve each day and show I can be the player I once was at right guard.”

Take your pick. Each of the recognizable offensive linemen bear an offense’s burden on their broad shoulders. Fifth-year left tackle Matt Kalil enters trying to earn a long-term contract, whether in Minnesota or elsewhere. Alex Boone lands with $10 million guaranteed and the hope a nasty playing style will brush off on teammates. Veterans in center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt are out to prove they’re healthy after significant injuries.

At right guard, where Fusco earned a five-year extension in 2014, he is fighting to show he is still a long-term answer just two years later. He’s competing to ward off Mike Harris, last year’s right guard who re-signed on a one-year deal after making 22 starts in two seasons since joining Minnesota.

Those two years have been a disappointment for Fusco. The first season ended with a torn pectoral muscle in Week 3 of 2014. Last year, the Vikings turned to him to fill a void at left guard. It ended up being his worst collective showing in three full seasons as a starter.

Pretend like someone asked you to write with your opposite hand, is how the 27-year-old Fusco often relayed his transition to this reporter last season. He said he struggled to find a comfort zone as Fusco tied rookie tackle T.J. Clemmings with a team-worst 42 quarterback hurries allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.

As a team, the Vikings surrendered 45 sacks, tied for 25th in the league. A focus under new offensive line coach Tony Sparano, Fusco said, is to drop that number dramatically.

“At least cut it in half, I’d imagine,” Fusco said.

Both Clemmings and Fusco particularly struggled, so later last season — including Week 16 against New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul — Fusco would sometimes pull from left guard to block the right end, his natural side, on certain pass plays. That allowed Clemmings and Harris to double team the defensive tackle, an easier assignment.

Now with Fusco permanently on the right side, offensive coordinator Norv Turner hopes he is in a place from which he can return to form.

“You control how you play. Brandon obviously voices that he’s more comfortable on the right side and that’s a starting point,” Turner said. “It might just be a mental thing. But he’s played well over there in the past and we’re looking for him to do that again in the future.”

Fusco admits the struggle to mentally adapt, though he’s not pinning last year’s issues all on switching sides of the line. “My strength wasn’t there,” Fusco said, adding he’s dropped a few pounds this offseason and is in “better shape.” He’s now enjoying an offseason free of physical therapy, unlike last year when he was recovering from a torn muscle in his chest.

“Having a good offseason is key for the whole year,” Fusco said. “I feel like I learned that last year. Really [was] just lifting 20-pound dumbbells and bench press when I’m now doing 150’s and stuff like that. It’s a big difference and I can feel it, I feel better.”

Playing nice

Fifth-year safety Harrison Smith is making a name for himself outside of where the Vikings are known. And should Smith get what he wants, his name will soon be among the league’s highest-paid safeties.

Smith, 27, is currently set to play this season on the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. Three months ago, general manager Rick Spielman said he anticipated an extension soon for Smith. The sides continue to work on a deal. The Vikings do have a working relationship with Smith’s agent, Brian Murphy of Athletes First, who also represents John Sullivan, Kyle Rudolph and Everson Griffen.

Instead of holding out, Smith is playing in voluntary OTAs and reiterated his trust in the front office.

“It’s obviously something you think about, but it’s not my focus while I’m here,” Smith said Wednesday.

Smith is not one to boast and brag. He’s not a boisterous presence in the locker room or on the field, even after his semi-trailer truck (legal) hits that have knocked Demaryius Thomas and Matt Forte out of games, among others. But he still cracks a smirk when asked if he thinks he should be the game’s highest-paid safety.

“I feel like I’m getting this question a lot,” Smith said. “I don’t want to talk about getting paid. Do I think I’m one of the best safeties? Absolutely. But I’ve thought that since I was a rookie, so nothing has changed.”

An uncertain future

Captain Munnerlyn is well aware how important this season is for his future.

As Munnerlyn enters the final year of his contract, the Vikings selected slot corner Mackenzie Alexander in the second round of the NFL draft. Though Alexander may play outside some day, he’s settled into the slot so far.

Munnerlyn, 28, knows that. And while he has no problem showing Alexander the ropes, he also has no plans on giving up his spot. He’s set to earn a $4.2 million base salary on the final season of a three-year deal inked in 2014 free agency.

“I’d be lying if I sat here and said, ‘It’s not that big of a deal,’” Munnerlyn said in regards to playing well in his contract year. “It can set you up for your life even more. As a player you like to see where the next step brings. You never know. You want to know, ‘Do they want you here? Do they not want you here? Will I be playing in Minnesota for the next four or five years?’ That’s how it goes.

“At the same time you can’t control that,” he added. “When they drafted a new corner I wasn’t mad or like, ‘Oh man. I’m out of here.’ No. I didn’t look at it like that. I was just like, ‘Man. I’ve got to bring it. I’ve got to bring up my game a little bit more and go out there and ball out.’”

No competition, for now

As of right now, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and the Vikings are content with pressing forward with fourth-year punter Jeff Locke.

Locke, 26, is entering the final year of his rookie contract after a 2015 season that culminated in his career-low, 41.6-yard average, which was the lowest among the league’s qualified punters. The Vikings brought in two undrafted rookies, Nick O’Toole (WVU) and Taylor Symmank (Texas Tech), last month for a tryout during rookie minicamp.

Conditions will ease on Vikings specialists as they move indoors to U.S. Bank Stadium, but the phone apparently isn’t too far away should Locke slip this summer.

“We had two good, young rookie punters here for the rookie minicamp that performed very, very well, so we know those guys are out there if we need to go that route,” Priefer said. “But right now from what I’m seeing so far from Jeff, he’s become the most consistent punter. That’s got to be a consistent theme for him the rest of spring into training camp.”

Late hits

  • Players held back or not practicing Wednesday included Adrian Peterson, Anthony Barr, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd, Rhett Ellison, Scott Crichton, Mackensie Alexander, Mike Harris and Austin Shepherd.
  • After being held back last week, left tackle Matt Kalil returned and practiced in full team drills with the first-team offense. Center John Sullivan, who is recovering from back surgery last fall, also regained his spot as the starting center. The top line included Kalil, Alex Boone, Sullivan, Fusco and Phil Loadholt.
  • Among guests at Wednesday’s OTA were Vikings Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle and seven-year-old fan Obadiah Gamble, whom Teddy Bridgewater visited last month during his birthday week upon receiving a music-video invitation. Gamble made a couple videos, one including Bridgewater.
  • A couple of first-round picks continued to work with the second team, including receiver Laquon Treadwell and cornerback Trae Waynes. They worked behind receiver Charles Johnson and cornerback Terence Newman, who had a diving interception in 11-on-11 sessions.
  • Defensive tackle B.J. Dubose (torn ACL) cleared waivers and reverted to the Vikings injured reserve list.

The post Notebook: ‘Back at home,’ Brandon Fusco wants to prove himself again at right guard appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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