Ezra Cleveland knows that in the competitive NFL there is no guarantee of having the same teammate beyond one season. The Vikings’ left guard is thinking the return of all five starters in 2023 will translate into the team’s best offensive line in years.
“It’s the same (group),” Cleveland told Sports Headliners. “Each one of us has been getting better every year. I feel like offensive linemen get better as they progress in their career. We’re all getting older. I am excited.”
Cleveland, center Garrett Bradbury and right tackle Brian O’Neill are all about to start their fourth NFL seasons. Right guard Ed Ingram is a second-year lineman, left tackle Christian Darrisaw, a third.
Those five players started much of last season until injuries hit. Ingram played well enough to be a rookie starter, O’Neill and Darrisaw looked like the Vikings’ best pair of tackles in a long time, Bradbury drew praise for his improvement and Cleveland was a solid run blocker.
“Continuity is big, having everyone back,” Cleveland said. “(The) relationships we all have is big. We’re able to coach each other out on the field and stuff like that.
“I feel like we all kind of have our own lingo. The (number) one offensive line is different than the two offensive line just cause how close we all are and how long we’ve been playing together.
“We’re going on four years with Garrett and Brian. Yeah, it’s big and it’s going to help us a lot this season.”
Cleveland and Bradbury are particularly close, spending time together almost every day the last two years, including the offseason. That gives the two veterans, playing next to each other on the line of scrimmage, a special connection.
“We know each other like the back of our hand and it helps out on the field,” Cleveland said. “I know what he’s going to do and he knows what I am going to do. The o-line is the only spot where five people have to mesh together to make other people’s jobs work, and having that connection is big.”
This will be a second consecutive season under head coach Kevin O’Connell, offensive coordinator Wes Phillips and line coach Chris Kuper. That adds to Cleveland’s optimism about the coming season.
Among offensive linemen, there was some hesitation in a new system last season. “Hemming and hawing” is the way Cleveland described the learning curve and uncertainty. “We always ended up on the right guys but it might have been right at the last second where we figured out what to do. ….When you’re playing fast and not really thinking, that’s when the best football is played I think.”
Cleveland sees another factor that makes him upbeat about the coming season and it’s the presence of new defensive coordinator Brian Flores. The new defense is aggressive and it’s a challenge to figure out what’s coming. “Flo’s defense is very, very difficult,” Cleveland said.
Dealing with last second adjustments in practice should help during the season as well as seeing different schemes in joint practices with the Titans and Cardinals this summer.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins, who threw 29 touchdown passes in 17 games last season, was sacked a career high 46 times. His total passing attempts of 643 was also third highest in the NFL as the Vikings became a more pass-focused offense. So that contributed to the 46 sacks but it’s no secret the Vikings must improve at pass blocking.
“…The whole line is like, okay, we gotta protect this guy,” Cleveland said. “Be firm and he’ll make stuff happen.”
Cleveland’s reputation is that of a better run blocker than pass protector. Does he agree? “Not necessarily. Run blocking is easy because there’s not really that much stress. You just have to go to the guy that is ID’d (to block). And in pass blocking these guys are paid a lot of money to beat us, but, no, I don’t think so.”
Cleveland has played left tackle and right guard for the Vikings. Because he played left tackle at Boise State he feels comfortable playing on the left side of the line and prefers his present position. He said fans don’t understand the difficulty switching from one side of the line to the other, comparing it to “like writing with your other hand.”
Cleveland, listed by the Vikings at 6-6 and 312 pounds, was born three weeks prematurely but weighed 11 pounds.
Former Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, 35, is retired, living in a Minneapolis suburb and working on his golf game.
The Gophers play five teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason college football top 25 poll: No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 19 Wisconsin, No. 21 North Carolina and No. 25 Iowa.
Chris Autman-Bell, coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss the last 10 games of the 2022 season, was running fluidly in practice today and made a challenging touchdown catch.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said after practice he likes the depth and complimentary skills of his running backs roster, and multiple personnel will be used in games. “It’s definitely going to be a committee approach,” Fleck said.
Fleck talking about redshirt defensive lineman Anthony Smith who has been turning heads in practice: “NFL scouts come up (and go), ‘Hey, who is that guy?’ You can’t touch him just yet.”
The 247Sports ranking of the Gophers Athan Kaliakmanis as the worst quarterback in the Big Ten and a ranking of No. 67 out of 69 Power Five at the position is ridiculous. His performance in late season wins over Wisconsin and Syracuse were impressive. BTW, Lindy’s Big Ten preview rates the Gophers’ QB unit as No. 8 in the 14-team league.
The Athletic yesterday named its preseason All-American teams and included Gophers’ safety Tyler Nubin on the second defensive unit. Joe Alt, the Totino-Grace alum and North Oaks resident, is a first-team offensive tackle. In 2022 Alt was named first-team All-American by five organizations.
Casey O’Brien, the former Gopher football player who has courageously battled cancer for years, had clean scans today and is cancer free for the last nine months, according to a post today on X from his father Dan O’Brien. Casey is coaching quarterbacks at Holy Family Catholic High School where his dad is preparing for his first season as head coach.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Noah Hills recently reported that each of the 85 scholarship players on the Pittsburgh football team will receive Name, Image and Likeness money through the Alliance 412 collective. Each player, on average, will receive five figures of compensation for performing charity work, per the story. Former Gophers quarterback Tim Salem is the tight ends coach for the Panthers.
Mike Grimm is approaching his 13th season as the radio voice of Gophers football and 18th for men’s basketball. No word yet on who will replace Spencer Tollackson as color commentator on basketball games.
Infielder Royce Lewis, who missed the last 36 Twins games with an oblique strain, was reinstated by the club today and to make room on the 26-man roster put utility player Willi Castro on the 10-day disabled list with a mild oblique strain.
MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, posted last Friday, includes three Twins talents in No. 16 Walter Jenkins, No. 18 Brooks Lee and No. 53 Emmanuel Rodriguez. Jenkins and Rodriguez, both outfielders, are projected to arrive in the bigs in 2026 and 2025 respectively. Lee, already in AAA with the Saints, is predicted to play for the Twins next season.
Former Twins World Series champion manager Tom Kelly turns 73 today.
Weather advisory for the more optimistic of Twins fans planning to attend postseason games at Target Field: the World Series starts October 27 and potentially goes through November 4, so prepare your fall-winter wardrobe.
In a recent YouTube interview with Graham Bensinger, former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura said Muhammad Ali was his idol and among his prize possessions are autographed boxing gloves from Ali presented to him years ago by prominent Minneapolis businessman and author Harvey Mackay. Ali and Mackay were close friends for decades until the champ passed away in 2016.
The St. Thomas men’s basketball team will be in Italy August 20-30 to play three games against professional teams. This will be the Tommies’ first international trip as a Division I program.Comments Welcome