Could Oli Udoh Jump from Elon to Be a Minnesota Vikings Starter?

Mar 1, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Elon offensive lineman Oli Udoh (OL56) goes through workout drills during the 2019 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Given the way the Vikings have rolled this offseason, whatever improvements they hope to make along their offensive line are expected to come from within. Four of the five starters from last season are currently slated to return, and the fifth (Josh Kline) remains a free agent who could still come back on a reworked deal. All of last year’s backups remain on the roster as well, joining three draft picks and three more UDFAs in a competition for Kline’s vacated right guard slot and the left guard gig tenuously held by Pat Elflein.

One name picking up offseason steam in this competition is Oli Udoh. A sixth-round pick out of Elon University in 2019, Udoh was viewed as a physical specimen in serious need of development. Udoh defied the odds and skipped the practice squad to make Minnesota’s roster, but he spent the first 16 weeks of the season taking practice reps only. All 31 of his 2019 offensive snaps came in the season finale against Chicago, and he performed well enough to create buzz heading into 2020.

With the Vikings investing a second-round pick in the recent draft in Ezra Cleveland they would appear set at tackle. Udoh could push Rashod Hill for the swing tackle role, or he could kick inside and join the battle royale for regular guard duty. What does Udoh bring to that battle, and what did he show in his limited action to generate optimism for his future with the Vikings?

College Scouting Reports

Everything about Udoh screams “project.” At 6’5″, 323 pounds with a reach measuring just a shade under three feet, Udoh owns all the physical tools the NFL desires. Scouting reports noted that he carried “very little bad weight” coming out of college, and he posted an impressive 8.13 Relative Athletic Score that was heavy on strength, size and burst but low in agility.

A four-year starter at Elon, the smallest school in the Colonial Athletic Association, Udoh didn’t earn All-Conference honors until his senior season. He relied primarily on his size and strength to dominate at a lower level of competition, though those types of questions were largely answered by a standout performance at the East/West Shrine game — one that earned him a call-up to the Senior Bowl. Exclusively a right tackle at Elon, Udoh also flashed some position versatility by taking reps at guard during Shrine game practices.

Scouts praised Udoh’s power, especially his grip strength and ability to finish a block once he locked on. However, his technique was seriously lacking and there were concerns about his football IQ — specifically, how quickly he processed changes in his assignment while on the move. Most scouting reports identified Udoh as a better fit for a power/gap scheme and worried about his ability to be effective in space and on the move — key traits for a successful zone-scheme lineman.

Ultimately, each report reached the same conclusion: While it might take time and coaching, Udoh’s athletic tools made him a project worth investing in. The Vikings jumped and drafted him 193rd overall in 2019.

Week 17 vs. Bears

Udoh toiled on the practice field for almost five months before finally reaching the main stage: the Week 17 finale at home against the Bears. Minnesota sat many of its regulars, and midway through the second quarter the Vikings pulled most of the starting offensive line; that’s when Udoh entered the game at right tackle.

Udoh’s first snap resulted in a safety as the Vikings ran left and a miscommunication between the guard and tackle led to a wide-open lane for linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski to shoot through and make the play.

Things got better for the Vikings’ offense, and while they ended up losing 21-19 there was much to like about Udoh’s performance. For starters, Udoh’s 79.7 pass-blocking grade was the best season-long mark among Vikings’ offensive linemen, and his 63.7 run-blocking grade ranked fourth — though 31 snaps isn’t exactly a viable sample size.

Some other highlights of Udoh’s Week 17 performance:

  • On at least eight occasions Udoh was tasked with blocking Khalil Mack, and aside from a relatively ticky-tack holding call on a first-down run by Mike Boone Udoh came out on top more often than not. On three pass-blocking reps Udoh prevented Mack from applying any pressure on Sean Mannion, and three of his run-blocking matchups resulted in gains of at least nine yards — all with Udoh battling Mack at or near the point of attack.

  • The Vikings were certainly not shy about running behind Udoh, and Mike Boone went directly off his hip for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
  • Udoh was a wall in pass protection, and not just against Mack. On multiple occasions Udoh had to kick-slide to pick up a wide-angle rusher, and in each instance he was successful. The only time a Bear blocked by Udoh came close to pressuring Mannion occurred midway through the third quarter: Mack stunted inside and was picked up by the guard, leaving Udoh with Aaron Lynch. Udoh blocked him, but Mannion broke the pocket to the right and Lynch chased him as he threw.
  • Most reports on Udoh coming out of college bemoaned a lack of aggression, but thrice during the Bears’ game Udoh hustled downfield to clean up a pile. One time he pushed the runner forward for a first down, and on a second he nearly pushed Boone into the end zone. The third… we’ll discuss that below.

Udoh’s game also highlighted developmental areas still in need of work:

  • Udoh seemed slow out of his stance, especially on his first few snaps. Also, often times he appeared to wait for defenders to engage him rather than looking for work. After only 16 weeks of practice reps a sluggish start is understandable, but to earn consistent playing time Udoh’s sense of urgency needs to show up sooner.
  • When asked to block on the move, Udoh was inconsistently successful. Again, most of the less effective reps happened early in his 31 snaps. For example, on the first play of the second half Udoh blocked down on the defensive tackle to his left, then was too late peeling back to engage the linebacker; those two combined to make the tackle for no gain.
  • Udoh was flagged twice, both penalties proving costly. One was a holding call while blocking Mack, negating a first-down run; the other was a dubious late-hit call as the Vikings were driving for a go-ahead touchdown. On that particular play Udoh pass-blocked on a quick throw, then hustled downfield and knocked a tackler off the ball-carrier. My biased ear didn’t hear a whistle before the hit, and given that Udoh had been dinged in the past for lacking aggression this wasn’t necessarily bad to see — but it can’t happen in a Week 17 game that actually means something.

  • When pulling or getting out on screens Udoh was a bit tardy and didn’t provide much in the way of blocking. This was another knock from Udoh’s scouting reports, and it’s an area that clearly remains a work in progress.
Udoh’s Fit with the Vikings

In many cases Udoh’s skillset would be a natural fit for a right tackle. But the Vikings clearly have a tackle type; with Cleveland drafted to play the left side and Brian O’Neill entrenched on the right, if Udoh remains at the position he’s looking at the swing role currently held by Rashod Hill. So long as Riley Reiff still remains the roster, until he can beat out Hill, Udoh would be a luxury as a fifth tackle.

With in-house competition expected to determine both guard spots, it wouldn’t be at all surprising for the Vikings to take a look at Udoh inside. His size and strength would go a long way towards preventing the pocket collapses that plagued the interior of the Vikings line last season. Udoh would have to demonstrate he’s improved his ability to make effective blocks on the move, but if he continues to upgrade his game and his technique, Rick Dennison will find a way to put his talents to good use.

The lack of a typical minicamp and perhaps even training camp and preseason don’t necessarily work in Udoh’s favor if the Vikings want him to learn a new position. But the potential that made him the first Elon alum to play in the NFL since 2014 remains, and there’s an opening along the Vikings’ offensive line where that potential can be developed.

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Mar 1, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Elon offensive lineman Oli Udoh (OL56) goes through workout drills during the 2019 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

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