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Updated: September 30th, 2011 1:12am
Pelissero: With transition looming, Vikings rookie o-linemen grind on

Pelissero: With transition looming, Vikings rookie o-linemen grind on

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Coaches are fond of saying there are no redshirt years in the NFL, but what about Minnesota Vikings offensive linemen Brandon Fusco and DeMarcus Love?

Watch them pace the sideline in sweats each game day, scribbling notes onto their respective clipboards, and it's not hard to envision these rookie sixth-round picks as college freshmen who know their chance is at least a year away.

"It's a whole different world in the NFL," Fusco said on Thursday. "I'm still learning."

There's more to this education than meets the eye.

Each week, Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson assigns Love and Fusco two or three opposing defensive linemen or linebackers to study on their own throughout the week.

"Last week, I had (Ndamukong) Suh," Love said. "Tampa Bay had (Gerald) McCoy and the first game, San Diego had Shaun Phillips. Every week, is they're going to have a Pro Bowl caliber guy on the d-line or somebody who's close to that."

How quickly do they get off the ball? Where do they place their hands? What do they like to do?

On Saturday morning, the rookies present their findings to the veteran starting unit.

"I actually type it all up," Fusco said. "I get a little fancy, get some pictures on there. I was thinking about doing some look-a-likes, too, but I'm not a really funny guy, so I don't think I want to make the veterans a little mad."

On game day, Davidson assigns his young offensive linemen to self-scout a specific teammate, charting the play and blocking scheme used on each snap.

Fusco, the center from Division II Slippery Rock, watches one of the interior players. Love, the tackle from Arkansas, generally watches someone on the outside.

"It really does help me," Love said. "Helps me to be able to focus a little more and be able to see things on the outside looking in."

Those findings are shared between drives with the teammates the rookies are charting. Later, they hand in their assignments to offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who assesses how well they're picking up things.

"As you see on the sideline, those guys are definitely into it," Musgrave said. "They've got a passion for football and a passion for Vikings football, so they've been a joy to work with."

The idea is to have Fusco and Love ready mentally as well as physically when their opportunities arise -- and looming transition along the offensive line could mean those chances come sooner than later, even without considering the way the unit has struggled this season.

Besides the two rookies, the only offensive lineman signed beyond next season is Charlie Johnson, who has been playing left tackle but is miscast there.

Center John Sullivan can become a free agent after the season. The contracts of left guard Steve Hutchinson, right guard Anthony Herrera and right tackle Phil Loadholt are up after 2012.

Of that group, only Loadholt seems likely to stick for the long haul, although he has yet to live up to his billing as the second-round draft pick (54th overall) who received a $1.2 million signing bonus in 2009.

Love received a relatively modest $103,100 bonus as the 168th overall selection in April. Fusco, drafted four picks later, received a $94,224 bonus. Yet the Vikings kept both around on cutdown day because they'd shown too much potential in the preseason to expose them to waivers.

"Starting from training camp, I came in a little shaky," Fusco said. "But I think I'm getting the hang of things, getting used to everything -- the speed, the strength and whatnot."

The Vikings have been experimenting with Fusco at guard in recent weeks. Love might have versatility to play inside eventually, too, but he's a tackle for now.

An AFC scout who watched both players closely at the Senior Bowl in January called Fusco a developmental guy who needs a year or two in the system before the Vikings will know what they have.

Love has "some athletic limitations with flexibility and stiffness and change of direction," the scout said. "There's a lot to like about the kid from a character standpoint and the intangibles."

Wherever they end up, the hope is Fusco and Love will have gotten enough out of this redshirt year to be in the mix next season.

As sophomores, if you will.

"That's my goal -- just keep getting better," Fusco said. "I know where I come from. I haven't seen this type of talent, ever. I'm getting better each week."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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