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Vikings Seem at Ease with Sullivan’s Progress at Center

John Sullivan didn’t play a single snap as a rookie behind Matt Birk, the six-time Pro Bowl selection who like Sullivan was once a sixth-round draft pick. Birk ended a nine-season run as Minnesota’s man in the middle when he signed with Baltimore in March.

But his time served as an apprentice behind Birk may prove to be a well spent investment into learning the nuances of the position. Plenty of knowledge was gobbled up by the pupil from the teacher. One of the best ways Sullivan learned the offense and his responsibilities for each play was by taking diligent notes during film sessions and team meetings, just like Harvard-grad Birk.

“Clearly he knows the stuff, but he wants to stay fresh on it,” Sullivan said, recalling his observation. “Even if you think you know, you have to keep doing it.”

So he jots down as much as he can when the video is on the screen. Sometimes, coach Brad Childress sits behind him and looks over his shoulder. He likes what he sees.
“He’s not just sitting there with his book closed and staring out into space,” Childress said. “He is writing a good bit.”

Although not usually appreciated by the casual fan, the Center position is possibly the most difficult, this side of quarterback, to learn. The amount of pre-snap assessments and decisions required at the position appears overwhelmingly complex, as linebackers sneak up to fake a blitz – or bring the real thing – and linemen shuffle back and forth to change the gaps they’re covering at the last second.

Sullivan, though, shrugs that off.

“I’ve been doing that since college, so it’s nothing new,” he said. “It’s just a new system, and I had all that time last year to learn behind Matt and see how he did it. So as long as you’ve put the time in … it’s not too much.”

Though Sullivan knows how to play the mind game to beat all mind games, he insists that being a chess expert is not part of the job description for an NFL center.

“I’ve seen ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ and I’m not that kid,” Sullivan said.

He’s much bigger than Fischer, of course, but Sullivan’s size is a main reason why he wasn’t drafted until late after leaving Notre Dame last year. Dispite spending alot of time in the gym building his functional strength, he’s gone from 293 Lbs. up to his current weight of 304. Still undersized by NFL standards.

Clearly, the Vikings are high on Sullivan and seem confident that he has mastered the “Learning Curve”. His intelligence and quickness are his main assets. The gap in terms of physical size and strength are somewhat bridged by the use of solid technique and a new level of “grit” he has brought with him to camp this season.

“He’s doing a good job. He’s a smart guy out there. He knows the checks. He knows where he’s supposed to be. He’s pretty quick for his size, so he presents his own problems in his own unique way,” defensive tackle Kevin Williams said, adding: “He can be that little mosquito that’s out there in your way.”

Williams said he’s seen more aggression from Sullivan in practice this season. It sure helps to go against Williams and fellow defensive tackle Pat Williams, both Pro Bowl players, every day.

“It’s probably the best experience you’re going to get,” said left guard Steve Hutchinson.

Sullivan actually practiced with the first team for much of last spring and summer while Birk skipped the optional offseason practices. He became comfortable then snapping to quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, and he’s getting there now with Sage Rosenfels while the two battle for the starting job.

My guess here is that there may be some tough moments early on trying to fill the shoes of a Pro Bowler. But clearly Sullivan has the mental make up of an NFL center ready to assume the reins and follow in the footsteps of greatness.

Is he Matt Birk at this stage of his career ? No. But he is on par with where Birk was in his second season out of Harvard.


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One Response to “Vikings Seem at Ease with Sullivan’s Progress at Center”

  1. pat says:

    this was a great article.

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