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Updated: April 27th, 2012 4:01pm
Vikings coaches believe Matt Kalil upgrades offense in several facets

Vikings coaches believe Matt Kalil upgrades offense in several facets

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Jeff Davidson knows his old left tackle is going to have to work well to his new one.

So, the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line coach did more than explain to Charlie Johnson that he'll be moving to left guard.

Davidson introduced Johnson to the family of top draft pick Matt Kalil, the former Southern California standout who arrived at Winter Park on Friday morning and is penciled in as the Day 1 starter on Christian Ponder's blindside.

"They all know (Johnson) is," Davidson said of Kalil's family. "I said, 'There's isn't going to be any bad blood,' and Charlie said, 'I just want to win games.'

"He does not care where he plays this game. He just wants to help us win. That's the type of guy he is. That's why I've fallen in love with the guy from Day 1."

Thrust into the lineup when the Vikings cut overweight Bryant McKinnie in training camp last year, Johnson started all 16 games at left tackle, faring OK in the run game but allowing eight sacks and 49 total quarterback pressures.

The releases of starting guards Steve Hutchinson and Anthony Herrera last month in essence left three jobs open on the line, since the Vikings had no intention of starting Johnson at tackle for another season.

But team officials privately had expressed optimism about the possibility of pairing Johnson and Kalil on the left side since November, when it became apparent they'd have a shot at Kalil with a top-five pick in the NFL Draft.

One day after they selected Kalil fourth overall, Davidson revealed he had broached the subject of moving Johnson to guard "about Week 3 of (last) season. This is something that's kind of been ongoing. ... I'm a no-nonsense guy, and essentially, when I think that I see a guy and I know what he's capable of and what he would help us most at, I'm going to let him know that."

Like many scouts, Davidson feels Johnson -- who mostly played left tackle for five seasons with Indianapolis before signing with the Vikings for a $3 million bonus on Aug. 1 -- is better suited for guard because of his relatively compact 6-foot-4 frame.

By comparison, Kalil measured 6-foot-6 5/8 at the NFL scouting combine in February and uses his 34½-inch arms to cover up edge rushers.

"Both those guys will be very smart and they'll be able to identify a bunch crazy looks that happen to the quarterback's left side," offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "People are trying to be very creative to get after all quarterbacks, and we've got good, smart guys over there that are athletic as well."

Musgrave said he remembers the day he first watched tape of Kalil and being "pleasantly surprised with how physical he was, because most left tackles are athletic and that's it. He's also strong.

"When he blocks somebody, he displaces them out there to the sideline, and he's got an excellent punch. He has long arms, but a lot of guys don't put those long arms to use. He does. When he punches, guys feel it."

It's that strength in pass protection that has Vikings coaches excited about the prospect of leaving Kalil in one-on-one situations, allowing them to get more receivers out in pattern.

"The more guys out, the better, especially for a young quarterback," Musgrave said. "We've got a couple of young quarterbacks that can make plays with their legs, and the more guys we get out of the backfield, the more space it creates for those QBs."

USC coach Lane Kiffin said on Thursday night the Trojans "never" gave Kalil help in protection over the past two seasons, regardless of the opponent.

Asked on Friday if that was an exaggeration, Kalil said, "I think they leaned on me to kind of be on an island over there by myself. That's definitely the challenge of a left tackle, and especially in the NFL, you're going to be left alone a lot and depended on. I think that's why we're drafted so high. ...

"I get mad when I get help, because I want to beat that guy by myself. That's what I love to do. I like going one-on-one against the defensive end and kind of being in that one-on-one battle. That's always fun for me."

The primary question scouts have raised about Kalil is his power in the run game and whether he can bulk up from the hips down to improve in that area. But Musgrave said he's not concerned.

"He's got the strength, and plus, he's a young guy," Musgrave said of Kalil, a junior entry to the draft who turns 23 in July. "He's only going to get stronger and more mature."

Kalil played at around 300 pounds at USC, bulked up to 306 before the combine and said he's now around 310, which still isn't particularly big by left tackle standards.

There's no doubting his feet, mobility and athleticism, though, and moving Johnson to guard has the Vikings convinced they've upgraded two positions with one pick.

"Obviously, there's an athleticism there," Davidson said. "There's a passion for the game. Smart, tough guys that have passion -- those are what we're looking for. He has all those traits. It makes my job easier.

"Do I think he can (play on an island)? Yes. I know that there's going to be times where the matchup is not going to be as easy as what it once was, but we have ways around that, too. I sit and listen to him talk about how he wants to do it by himself. There are going to be times where we're going to want to help him, too, and it's not because he's a lesser player.

"We have other guys that we need to be able to slide to and help him, or whatever the case may be. But he'll take whatever challenge on that we put in his way."

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.
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