MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Some players taken in the late rounds of the NFL draft are available there because of off-the-field concerns. The extra baggage Brandon Fusco brought to the Minnesota Vikings was his alma mater.
Slippery Rock University is no slouch. The Rock, as the program is informally known, has annually been a top-tier team in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, with a handful of NCAA Division II playoff appearances on file. But that’s just it: Slippery Rock is Division II, where plenty of players with professional-caliber skills struggle to attract attention and get those precious opportunities to make an NFL team.
“I feel like I always have that chip on my shoulder,” Fusco said. “I always have to prove to these people that I can play.” Fusco then knocked over the small-school stereotype like he was firing out of his stance across the line to send a middle linebacker falling to the turf.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” said Fusco, who’s in line to be Minnesota’s starting right guard this season. “It’s just heart and determination.”
Slippery Rock players have reached the pros before, but Fusco last year was the first to be invited to the Senior Bowl and the Scouting Combine, both important skills showcases for NFL prospects. Fusco impressed the Vikings enough that they drafted him in the sixth round and kept him on their active roster all season.
“That was a tremendous accomplishment,” said Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik, who promised Fusco during his rookie year he’d attend a game when he became a starter.
Fusco played in only three games as a rookie in 2011, but his first action came in October against Green Bay when Anthony Herrera hurt his left knee. Adrian Peterson rushed for 175 yards in that game.
“I play physical, just like I did in college,” Fusco said. “That’s never going to be a problem for me.”
Switching from center to guard gave him more of a chance to hand out those hard hits. Fusco started his college career as a tackle, but he moved to the middle as a freshman and became a four-year starter and the Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year Award winner in 2010.
“I think he’s still got a little ways to go as far as learning and just recognizing stuff, but he’s been real stout over there and he can help us out,” said Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who has lined up across from the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Fusco throughout training camp. “He’s real feisty. He’s a load over there.”
Said Vikings center John Sullivan: “He’s a mauler.”
The complexity of the center position has made his transition to guard a bit simpler, too. Sullivan and offensive line coach Jeff Davidson have helped him improve his footwork, arm and body position and gain a better grasp of his blocking assignments and the defense’s cues that can give linemen an edge.
“It’s one thing to just go out there and be a brawler and go crazy and beat people up, but you have to do it in a controlled way and do it within your basic technique,” Sullivan said.
And avoid those personal foul penalties.
“He’s very courteous, polite and professional, but when a helmet goes over his head he becomes a little nastier,” Mihalik said. “Not in a dirty sense, but in a physical sense. He might’ve picked up a penalty here and there, but it was just out of an extra-effort kind of thing. I would overlook that because I knew he had a competitive spirit.”
The veteran Herrera, who was released in February, had a similarly fiery style that, when harnessed, could fuel a productive run-blocking performance. The Vikings (No. 29 in the AP Pro32) signed Geoff Schwartz to compete for the open spot. But the former Carolina tackle who missed all of last season after right hip surgery had hernia surgery Tuesday that could keep him out for a month or more.
“You never want to see an injury,” Fusco said. “I know it’s my job right now to lose, but I’ve just got to come prepared every day with the same attitude and prove to these guys, my teammates and my coaches, that I can do a good job and become a solid starter for years to come.”
When he came to Slippery Rock, he weighed only 240 pounds, but he left school with a degree in safety and environmental management and almost 70 more pounds.
“That’s why D-I schools didn’t recruit him. If you’re not already 290 pounds, they don’t want to wait for you to develop,” Mihalik said.
When Fusco was a freshman, NFL scouts had their eyes on Mike Butterworth, a senior tackle who wound up spending some time on Atlanta’s roster. When they started asking about Fusco, Mihalik knew he had another potential pro under his watch.
“I never look at him as a D-II athlete. I look at him as another offensive lineman we have here,” Davidson said. “It doesn’t matter where he played.”
The Vikings believe Fusco can continue to fill out as he keeps up his routine in the weight room. They also, simply, believe in him. Nearly every time general manager Rick Spielman starts talking about the potential in this young, rebuilt roster, he mentions Fusco unprompted.
Fusco laughed nervously when he was told as much this week.
“That means they have a lot of trust in me,” Fusco said. “I don’t want to let anyone down. I’ve just got to keep proving it each day.”