Now Every Rep Is Huge
The MMQB is following undrafted Zach Line's pursuit of an NFL dream no matter where his journey takes him this season. Read our past installments.
MANKATO, Minn. — Day Two of training camp. The rookie fullback is on the practice field for the first time, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, paying attention to each snap of the morning walk-through. The NFL’s best running back jogs over, and after a few seconds, has something to say.
“How’s that gum?” Adrian Peterson asks.
Zach Line suddenly realizes he’s been chomping loudly. He looks over at his teammate.
“Hey, you ever chew gum so long that it melts in your mouth?” Peterson continues.
“Well, this gum turned into a rock,” Line says.
Line is in daily competition to earn a spot on the Vikings’ 53-man roster. But no, not every moment on the practice field is significant—just most of them.
Still chewing his gum, Line is called upon a few seconds later to take a rep with the second-team offense. His daily routine has changed from bunking at his parents’ home in Michigan and late-morning workouts at a nearby gym, to living in a dorm room at Minnesota State University with no television and waiting patiently for practice reps that allow no margin for error.
Training camp started eight days ago, when Line arrived on the rookie bus in this small college town about 90 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. The first team meeting took place that evening, and as Line and his fellow rookies poured out of their dorm building and rode bicycles around campus, they weren’t quite sure where to go. “I’m following everybody else,” one of the rookies said, pointing at a group of veterans.
You’ve got so many guys you’re going to compete against. And then you come to the team that has the best running back, so you must be thinking, How tough is it going to be for me? —Adrian Peterson
On the field, Line is following the veterans, too. During each morning walk-through and afternoon practice, he waits for an assistant coach to signal when it’s his turn to go in. Practice reps are rationed carefully, on both offense and special teams. During one practice, the Vikings ran about 50 plays of 11-on-11 team drills. Line got a chance to be a part of just 10.
Still don't think every rep matters?
The Vikings’ offense was running plays on air (that is, against an imaginary defense) when Line executed a seam route down the middle of the field. The pass bounced off his hands.
“You get both hands on it?” James Saxon, the running backs coach, asked him.
“Yeah,” Line said.
“You know you’re supposed to catch those,” Saxon told him.
Line knows. A couple minutes later he ran the same play—and caught it. “You don’t want to drop too many,” he says.
Line was a tailback at Southern Methodist—he rushed for 4,185 career yards there, second only in school history to Eric Dickerson—so he still has a lot to learn about playing fullback, and he must do it fast. Saxon’s constantly reminding him to stay lower to the ground. “Bend! Bend!” the coach calls out during a blocking drill. That lesson hit home for Line on Tuesday morning when he woke up with a sore chest after the Vikings’ first padded practice. He needed no other reminder to bend—and absorb the hits with his shoulder pads—the next day.
Line had been waiting to put the pads on since he signed with the Vikings in April. It just so happened that Jerome Felton, who's No. 1 on the depth chart, had to miss part of the first padded practice, as well as the next day, for a personal matter. Line found himself practicing with the ones. And the twos. And the threes. Not to mention sprinting up and down the field with the kickoff coverage and kickoff return teams. Afterward he was worn out, physically and mentally. He couldn’t remember exactly how many reps he’d taken, just that it was a “smorgasbord.” But for an undrafted rookie, being worn out means you're being given a chance.
On some of those reps, he blocked for Peterson. They share a practice field, but their worlds are very different. Line walked past a group of autograph-seeking fans on campus one day and heard what he thought were cheers for him—only to turn around and see Peterson behind him.
"You’ve got so many guys you’re going to compete against," Peterson says. "And then you come to the team that has the best running back, so you must be thinking, How tough is it going to be for me?"
Sometimes, it’s good to just talk about chewing gum. And go figure, gum came up again that very night, this time with special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.
One of the most important coaches for an undrafted rookie to impress, Priefer talks a mile a minute and likes to have a wad of gum so his mouth doesn’t get dry when he leads meetings. But he ran out, so Line offered his last two pieces of Trident.
“It saved me for the meeting,” Priefer says.
Anything to stand out.