We have spilled digital ink on rookie linemen T.J. Clemmings and Tyrus Thompson, who at different points in the spring lined up with the first-team offense. We have not written much about fellow rookie Austin Shepherd beyond this story on the great things he is trying to do away from football.
So who exactly is Shepherd and where does he fit into the mix?
Shepherd, a seventh-round pick, started 27 games at right tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide, helped open lanes for backs such as Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon and was part of a pair of national championship teams.
“He’s a guy that kind of knows how to play,” coach Mike Zimmer said, and he meant that in a positive kind of way. “So I think he’s got a chance. I just don’t know where it’s going to end up being. We’ve got him playing tackle now, but he may end up moving in to guard.”
Shepherd laughed when asked why he thinks he is a polished prospect.
“Coach [Nick] Saban. Pretty much Coach Saban and all his coaches,” he said. “He pretty much runs [Alabama] like an NFL program, everything from structure to discipline and anything you can think of. He’s just that kind of guy. Everything that he’s taught me has gotten me to this point.”
So far in training camp, Shepherd has been getting reps with both the second-stringers and the third-team offense as the Vikings try to figure out where he and also Clemmings and Thompson best fit along the line. For now, Shepherd is not in the mix at the open competition at right guard.
It has been a while since he regularly played guard. He practiced there a little bit at Alabama, but his only extensive experience was during two years in high school. That being said, he’s game for playing guard if asked.
“I’m honestly willing to play anything to make the team,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd appears to be on the bubble now and can play his way onto the team with a solid preseason. If not, he could be a practice squad candidate.
“I feel everything has been going good,” Shepherd, a 23-year-old Alabama native, said. “Just keep getting acclimated and learning the offense like I have been and everything will work out.”
When you have as many jobs as Flip Saunders has — part-owner, head coach and President of Basketball Operations with the Timberwolves — it can be hard to keep up on social media.
He has tweeted 692 times in his life, but until Sunday, there had been nary a peep from Saunders on Twitter since March 26, 2014 — not long before the end of his first year back with the Wolves, when he ran the front office, and roughly two months before he took over coaching duties as well. My daughter, born four days later, has never known a world in which Flip tweets. Sad, really — until now.
There was Flip on Sunday with a flurry of three tweets on a subject that has proven in the past to get under his skin but one that nonetheless has provided others on Twitter plenty to talk about: three-pointers.
Specifically: Will Saunders and the Wolves ever get better at both making them and incorporating them into their offense? And more to the point: How does Saunders even FEEL about them?
And in the final analysis: Does what Flip says about threes match what he does about them — all things, even mitigating circumstances, considered?
First, the three tweets: Here’s the full text, strung together:
“Been reading Blogs and tweets from Experts? Think it might be time to get back on Twitter to set the facts straight and get real stories. … Let’s get something straight. I’m not talking about fans. Many times they make a lot of sense and I share their thoughts. … Let’s set this straight. I love 3 pointers. We have to shoot and will. Whoever said u didn’t like 3 s is wrong. We will improve.“
Conclusions if we only pay attention to the tweets: 1) Flip loves three-pointers. 2) Flip loves the fans. 3) Flip hates being told he doesn’t love three-pointers. 4) Flip doesn’t care much for #Blogs and #Experts.
But as the excellent Steve McPherson notes, feelings are not numbers. And while the numbers will never tell us how Flip feels about three-pointers deep down in his soul or if his heart skips a beat when a three-ball walks into a room, they can tell us that in his years as a coach they have rarely been a part of his plan.
Saunders’ teams — from his early Wolves teams to the Pistons to the Wizards and, yes, last year with the Wolves — have never shot a lot of 3-pointers. It’s really that simple. Here are where his teams have ranked in terms of 3-pointers attempted for his entire coaching career: 28th, 25th, 22nd, 27th, 28th, 25th, 21st, 27th, 27th, 21st (this was the season Saunders was fired by the Wolves after 51 games), 10th (his first season with Detroit), 19th, 22nd, 24th (with the Wizards), 27th, 20th and last season, 30th — or dead last, in other words.
Here I will offer a mitigating circumstance: in his first go-round with the Wolves, Kevin Garnett was the focal point of the offense. This was written in the Star Tribune in December of 2004 (the season, by the way, in which he was fired even though the Wolves were hoisting a lot of threes):
Saunders, the Timberwolves coach, has never been a huge proponent of the three-point shot. Less was more when launching the ball from long distance. It’s OK, if it comes in the context of the offense and the right person is taking it. And so last season, for example, the Wolves were fifth in the league in three-point percentage (36.3), but they were 27th in attempts and three-pointers made. “I discourage it in terms of dribbling the ball up and throwing ‘em up,” he said. “We do have an MVP who should get some touches of the ball.“
KG was never a three-point shooter. He was deadly on the block and from mid-range. Then again, so is Tim Duncan. And the Spurs have morphed — sometimes with coach Gregg Popovich kicking and screaming — into a deadly three-point shooting team. In 1999-2000, for instance — early in the Pop run, and the season after they won the NBA title — the Spurs ranked 24th in the NBA in three-pointers attempted at 10.8 per game. Last season, they attempted more than twice as many — 22.5 per game — and ranked in the middle of the pack. So that speaks to the evolution of the Spurs and the evolution of the three NBA-wide in the past 15 years.
A more recent mitigating circumstance: the Wolves don’t have a lot of great three-point shooters. This is very true, and it became even more so last season after the trade of Kevin Love. The 2013-14 Wolves, with Flip as the boss and Rick Adelman as the coach and Love as the focal point, attempted 21.4 threes per game — the same number as the Spurs and in the middle of the NBA pack. Last year, with Flip running the offense and Love gone, that number plummeted to 14.9 (last in the NBA, as noted). So yes, the players you have can and should dictate how many threes you shoot.
But: Flip the coach is being supplied players by Flip the basketball boss. He’s built a young and athletic roster, but he hasn’t really loaded it with shooters. Rather, he seems to be banking on the ability of Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and co. to improve, as evidenced by this snippet from a December 2014 Q&A I did with him (conveniently almost exactly 10 years after that previous Star Tribune item about his reputation for having a disdain for the three … and note how I phrased it, since Flip had already been showing a sensitivity at that time to being pressed on the team’s lack of shooting threes):
Q Everybody makes a big deal about three-pointers. The Wolves give up a lot of them and don’t make many of them. I’m not here to question what you’re doing, but do you see Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins eventually becoming guys who can shoot consistently from that distance? A [Wiggins], right now, is leading us. He will, when he gets more confident. And Zach can shoot. Zach’s biggest thing is he’d be a much better three-point shooter if he was off the ball. Right now he’s on the ball trying to run the team, not knowing when he should shoot it. … We’re doing the right things, and eventually when Ricky [Rubio] comes back we’ll get into a flow and guys will be able to make threes.
That interview came 22 games into the season; 15 of the 16 games in which the Wolves shot the most threes last season came after that, so they did get a little launchier as the year went along. Still, Flip should never complain that he doesn’t have the horses to shoot threes because he’s the one running the stable.
If we’re trying to get to the root of the issue, I’d wager this as a conclusion: Flip’s not crazy about threes; he hardly “loves” them, even if he says he does. But even if they don’t fit directly into how he likes to construct an offense, he’s smart enough to know that the game has evolved the point that threes are often vital to success (both shooting them and defending them, both areas of weakness on last year’s team). And I would guess he’s smart enough to know that going 33 percent from three-point range is better than going 45 percent from 18 feet.
What he’d really like is for everyone to get off his back and trust that he’ll start working threes into the offense more as he evolves and his players evolve. The preponderance of evidence to the contrary — consistent bottom-third rankings of his teams in terms of three-pointers attempted — makes that blind faith quite difficult to accept.
So at the end of the day, I have a feeling the Bloggers and Experts are going to keep firing away until Flip’s teams do. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 16 months for another tweet or for evidence that he’s a man of his word.
This past spring, as Brandon Fusco first started to make the conversion from right guard to left, his most challenging opponent was not defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd or big nose tackle Linval Joseph, but muscle memory.
Sometimes when Fusco would rocket out of his stance, his body would have plans of its own after years of practice rep after rep after rep.
“It’s just the balance of your stance and how you get out of those stances, and keeping your weight on the inside of [your other] foot. It’s just different technique,” Fusco said. “It’s basically everything you learn on the right is opposite on the left. It’s something you have to get used to.”
Months later, in the simmering afternoons of late July and early August, Fusco said he has felt more and more comfortable at his new position every day. Slowly and steadily he has been able to fend off that muscle memory.
It also helps that the 27-year-old has fully recovered from the torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2014 season three games in.
“I’ve really had no problems so far,” he said. “Health-wise, I feel great. Nothing is bothering me. So I’m ready to go and I’m excited.”
The Vikings have cited a couple of reasons for moving Fusco, who had become one of the NFL’s better right guards before his injury, over to the left. One is that they felt young linemen such as T.J. Clemmings and Austin Shepherd would be better off if they remained on the right side. Another reason is that they hope Fusco will help Matt Kalil get back on track.
Kalil was one of the league’s worst left tackles in pass protection in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus. And while the onus is on Kalil to simply perform better, there may be something to the belief that the struggles of last year’s left guard, Charlie Johnson, made Kalil look worse than he was.
“Teams are going to see if a certain side can’t pick up a game or a stunt and they’re just going to keep attacking it,” Fusco said. “I think that was the case last year and we have to do a better job this year. We need to be on the same page when we’re feeling those stunts out, and it starts here in practice.”
As Fusco finished that sentence, Kalil walked past and slapped his backside.
If Fusco can successfully make the switch to the left, Kalil and the Vikings will certainly benefit. And while the transition literally came with initial missteps, Fusco believes he will be used to his new position by Week 1.
“I don’t think it is going to be a difficult transition for me at all,” he said.
On most mornings, we walk through what’s going on with the Vikings.
WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
– We took a look at the key elements of pass protection for NFL running backs and how Matt Asiata ranks No. 1 on the team while Adrian Peterson strives to be more than average and Jerick McKinnon works overtime to catch up.
– Lineups are in flux, with the most notable development being rookie first-round draft pick Trae Waynes getting reps with the No. 1 nickel package at the expense of Captain Munnerlyn.
– Peterson likely to go a fourth straight preseason with no carries, but he said he’s fine with that.
– Footage of rookie receiver Stefon Diggs stealing the show in Saturday night’s practice.
AROUND THE NFC NORTH
– In Green Bay, some are saying that Clay Matthews might by scarier as an inside linebacker than he was on the outside.
– In Detroit, Free Press columnist Drew Sharp writes about how the buzz heading into today’s first training camp practice is more than the typical snoring sound that comes with following Lions football.
– In Bourbonnais, Bears linebacker Shea McClellin says he’s learning how to be a leader and the quarterback of the defense.
TODAY’S VIKINGS SCHEDULE
The Vikings return to their normal schedule today with the morning walkthrough from 10:30 to 11:30 and a practice in pads from 2:45-5 p.m. They should be relatively fresh considering they weren’t in full pads yesterday.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
The backup left tackle position isn’t something we’ve talked or written much about. Carter Bykowski, the Eden Prairie native who went to Iowa State, was working with the second unit until an injury sidelined him recently. The result of that injury was at least partly responsible for the Vikings now taking a longer look at guard David Yankey at left tackle. Neither Bykowski nor Yankey has played in a regular season NFL game. Bykowski spent 2013 and most of the 2014 season on the 49ers practice squad. He was signed to the Vikings 53-man roster during Week 15 last year. Yankey was a game-day inactive for 15 games as a rookie last year. He didn’t play in his one active game.
SETTING THE SCENE: After Saturday night’s practice under the lights, coach Mike Zimmer didn’t feel a full morning walkthrough was necessary. So the Vikings crammed it all in during the afternoon, practicing in helmets and shoulder pads from 2 to 5 p.m. It was a sunny but breezy day here.
HEINICKE GETS A CHANCE: The coaches gave quarterback Shaun Hill a break today, and it was rookie Taylor Heinicke who got a look with the second-stringers. He has been streaky in camp so far, but he fared OK today. He threaded a touchdown pass to rookie tight end MyCole Pruitt and hit receiver Cordarrelle Patterson a couple of times on the sidelines. It looks like Heinicke has the leg up on Mike Kafka to be the No. 3 QB.
MR. RED ZONE: Charles Johnson could end up being quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s go-to guy near the end zone. Johnson picked up where he left off Saturday night, consistently creating separation in red-zone drills today. That’s not easy to do in such close quarters. Johnson has clearly improved his route running, and the 6-foot-2 wideout showed off his ball skills and body control when he caught a back-shoulder fade against Xavier Rhodes.
FROM NORTH OF THE BORDER: Brian Peters, who joined the Vikings after a stint in the Canadian Football League, is currently running ahead of recent draft picks such as Brandon Watts and Michael Mauti. He has often been with the second-team defense and seems to have some mobility. It’s still early, but Peters looks like a legitimate candidate to make this team.
LEGEND IN THE HOUSE: Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Alan Page was here to watch practice and do a shoot for NFL Films. After the practice, both players and coaches surrounded Page on the field as he dispensed wisdom.
CAMP CHATTER: “I think we ran out of oil in the training room.” — Zimmer explaining why Hill, his 35-year-old backup QB, was rested.
INJURY REPORT: Offensive tackle Carter Bykowski (thigh bruise), wide receiver Gavin Lutman (hamstring) and running back DuJuan Harris (shoulder) sat out practice for a second straight day. Meanwhile, Zimmer said that cornerback Josh Robinson (pectoral) is not close to a return.