EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) When Phil Loadholt limped off the field in the first quarter on Saturday night, Minnesota Vikings fans started going through all the lists of available free agents and trades their team could make to fill the 6-foot-8, 345-pound hole at right tackle created by his injury.
A day after an MRI confirmed what the Vikings feared after walking out of the stadium, offensive coordinator Norv Turner indicated that no big changes were afoot.
Loadholt will miss the season with a torn left Achilles tendon, and Turner said rookie T.J. Clemmings would slide in to replace the veteran in the starting lineup.
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Turner did not rule out other moves later in the preseason, but for now the Vikings appear to be moving forward with the fourth-round draft pick as their preferred option.
”He’s a young player with a bright future and he’s going to have to step it up,” Turner said of Clemmings before practice on Monday.
Loadholt has been a steady presence on the Vikings offensive line for the past six seasons. He’s been a starter since he entered the league as a second-round pick out of Oklahoma and was coming back this season after missing the final five games of last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
With Loadholt and left tackle Matt Kalil returning to full health after injury-filled seasons last year, the Vikings hoped the offensive line was in position to perform much better than the unit that struggled in 2014.
They moved right guard Brandon Fusco to left guard to replace the departed Charlie Johnson and slid right tackle Mike Harris to right guard in the revamped unit.
One of the speculative scenarios first introduced in the wake of Loadholt’s injury was for the Vikings to bring in free agent Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis and move Harris back out to right tackle.
But Turner said the team has been pleased with the way both Fusco and Harris have performed in their new positions through the first two preseason games, indicating a reluctance to do such major shuffling with the Week 1 opener at San Francisco three weeks away.
”I’m sure we’re going to look at all the different options that are there, but if T.J. plays like he did Saturday night and like he did in that first game and keeps growing as a player and continues to play well out here, he should be able to be a very competitive player in this league,” Turner said.
Clemmings, a 6-foot-5, 309-pound mauler in college at Pittsburgh, was considered by many scouts to be a first-round talent. He fell to the fourth round after concerns about a foot injury and has shown no ill effects while playing in training camp.
When asked if he feels like he’s ready to step in and be the starter, Clemmings was careful to express confidence in himself while acknowledging the learning and improvement yet to come.
”I’d say I feel like I’m getting ready; I’m getting there,” he said. ”Every day is just about getting better and improving and not making the same mistakes twice.”
The learning curve just got a whole lot steeper for Clemmings, who will be relied upon to help keep second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from getting sacked as often as he did last season and open holes for Adrian Peterson, who is returning from almost one year away.
”I feel like my coaches are behind me,” Clemmings said. ”But it’s really up to me as to what I do when I’m out there.”
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