- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Jeff Davidson hadn't traveled to Lehigh University to see Brandon Fusco.
A couple months after he started as the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line coach, Davidson had made the trip to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the spring of 2011 primarily to watch Lehigh guard Will Rackley workout. Rackley was drafted in the third round that year by the Jacksonville Jaguars and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Fusco happened to be there, having traveled five hours across Pennsylvania from Slippery Rock University for the workout, and the more Davidson saw of the pugnacious lineman, the more time he wanted to spend seeing if Fusco could handle the nuances of a NFL scheme. The more he did that, the more convinced he became that Fusco could make the leap from Division II college football to the NFL.
"We were fairly excited about the guy," Davidson said. "We thought he had a chance to develop into an interior player for us. Every day, he's a guy that's continued to come in and work and find ways to improve. We ask our guys, each day, to come in and find one thing to work on, and try to get better at one thing each day. He has truly done that."
It's how Fusco has quietly transformed himself from a sixth-round pick to an integral member of the Vikings' offensive line. He and right tackle Phil Loadholt have made the starboard side of the Vikings' line one of the game's most effective run-blocking units, and Fusco -- who started 32 of 33 games the last two seasons -- has outplayed his modest rookie contract, earning a team-high $237,060.74 from the NFL's performance bonus pool last season and triggering wage escalators that will leave him making $1.431 million this season. He'll be a free agent after this year, but a long-term deal before then seems like a definite possibility for the 25-year-old.
Not bad for a kid from a small school who had to work just to catch the Vikings' eye.
"[When I got here], I didn't know anything about the game of football like I do know," Fusco said. "It's just amazing. My whole game has changed."
Fusco arrived in Minnesota with only a rudimentary knowledge of good blocking technique: How to use leverage, what to look for in an opponent and where to put his hands. He played center at Slippery Rock, and was often strong enough to overpower defensive linemen without having to pay much attention to how he did it. He got a year to sit behind Anthony Herrera and work with Davidson -- who'd played five years in the league, worked as an assistant coach on the New England Patriots' three championship teams and arrived in Minnesota after a stint as the Carolina Panthers' offensive coordinator.
Davidson quickly found an eager pupil in Fusco, and with every drill, every mundane repetition, the guard began to improve.
"I like to say that's actually the way you do improve," Davidson said. "There's detailed work that we try to work with each of our drills, and we try to aid them to find that one thing they're working on each day. Sometimes the drills aren't exactly like a play against a defense, necessarily, but we'll try to work on hand placement and break down the block, where everything happens by step. People probably don't realize, and I don't realize, how much guys work on something as simple as tightening your elbow back down to your body when you're striking with your hands. He still works on it every day.
"If anything, you had to slow him down on the speed with which he tried to work some of the drills. He's the one guy who will come down here and try to knock somebody silly when we're going half-speed. The guy has a burning desire to get better each day, and that's what makes him a good football player."
Fusco struggled in his first year as a starter in 2012, as he was still learning the position and rotating with Geoff Schwartz early in the season, but he and Loadholt paved one of Adrian Peterson's most-traveled highways during his MVP season. Peterson gained 688 of his 2,097 yards running toward right guard or right tackle, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and a whopping 1,563 of his yards came on runs up the middle or toward the right side of the line.
The guard said he and Loadholt sometimes spend two to three nights a week together golfing, playing cards or watching TV, and their chemistry has carried over onto the field.
"[Him and Phil] click pretty well together, but more importantly than that, they communicate very well together," Davidson said. "I'm going up to correct them, and they're already correcting the thing that just happened on the previous play. There's very few things that get lost in translation with those guys, because they are excellent communicators with each other."
And last season, things really started to click for Fusco. Pro Football Focus rated him the ninth-best guard in the game in 2013, grading him as the fifth-best run blocker at the position. He's still got room to improve in pass protection, but he's carved out a niche as a road grader on the Vikings' line.
Like the rest of the group, Fusco is immersed in a new offensive scheme, which Davidson said changes the team's pass protection concepts more than it alters their run scheme. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner's downfield passing game will likely require linemen to protect quarterbacks longer, and the group could get tested early in the season.
But if Fusco keeps improving, there could be a reward waiting for him. He didn't think the Vikings had talked with his agent, Jared Fox, about a new contract yet, and didn't seem worried about it happening soon. "That's why I've got an agent," he said. "I'm just going to play, and we'll worry about that later down the road. I've still got a lot to prove."
The reason he could end up with a new deal at all, though, is because he's proven plenty already.
"The guy has truly taken it by the reins each day," Davidson said. "To this day, he's the guy that's the first one out here to go over there, trying to find something each day he's going to be able to work on."
2dEric D. Williams
2dEric D. Williams