Hockenson was able to catch up quickly and was a key element of the Viking’s game plan.
That’s a lot of easing T.J. Hockenson into action.
On Tuesday that day, the Vikings gave two draft selections to the Lions in order to acquire Hockenson. Five exhausting, mentally demanding days later, was he, the team’s leader in receptions during the win that came back from opponents like the Washington Commandos. Hockenson was on the field for nearly every play and was the focal point of the Viking’s offensive attack on Sunday, catching nine targets that were thrown at him for 70 yards — which is the most of any Minnesota tight end in the entire season.
A lot of effort was put into getting the Vikings the newest player on the team ready for the game. With just a few days to adjust to a completely new system, it required a lot of commitment from Hockenson as well as a few others, from the moment the time he arrived on the ground in Minnesota the night of Tuesday. Hockenson spent a lot of time with Vikings coaches for tight ends Brian Angelichio and third-string quarterback David Blough, a former player of his in Detroit throughout the week. With them at the top of the list, Hockenson took a crash course on Kevin O’Connell’s offense. scored a perfect score on his first test Sunday.
“Can’t say enough about what T.J. Hockenson did this week to learn this system,” Kirk Cousins said. “Took me about four months to learn it; he did it like four days, so he’s kind of making me look bad. Not one time in the huddle did I feel like he was looking at me like he didn’t know what to do. Just very much on top of it. Gave me a sense of ease as a result.”
There was no way to determine exactly what we could expect from Hockenson when he played his debut game for the Vikings. The offense of O’Connell is a complicated one. This is something we’ve seen from Cousins, Adam Thielen, and other Vikings players throughout the course of the season. There was much to be learned. With the limited time available were there any realistic chances to expect Hockenson to play a significant part in the game?
It turns out that it was.
Hockenson played as the only tight end in the 11-person squad during the opening game’s opening play He was an all-time player throughout the game. He snagged a 19-yard touchdown pass through the middle during the Viking’s first third-down opportunity, displaying his size and athleticism which earned him a top-10 selection in the 2019 draft and an NFL Pro Bowler in 2020.
Hockenson had a catch of 18 yards in the 2nd quarter and a 13-yarder in the third quarter. Five of his catch resulted in first downs, with three of them from third-down. The nine-yard run was within the red zone third and 4 play during the 4th quarter which led to the Vikings winning field goal.
In the absence of one incident in which Hockenson did not get an aggressive defensive back that resulted in a sack, there was nothing to suggest Hockenson was new on the field. Hockenson seemed comfortable on the field and appeared as if he’d played with the Vikings all season.
“He deserves all the credit, both him and Brian Angelichio, the tight ends coach, they spent a lot of time together over the last five days, getting him ready to play,” O’Connell told reporters. “We did not really make any changes and there wasn’t a separate offense while T.J. was in there. I’m stunned by how well-prepared he was to play.
“I think it’s a testament to his work ethic, his ability to retain a lot of information, and then obviously the coaching by Brian to get with him and kind of be at his side five, six days in a row in hopes of having him ready to go. You could feel his presence on the field. It’s a big-time addition that Kwesi (Adofo-Mensah) and his staff went and got us.”
Hockenson took the extra mile to prepare for the game. From Wednesday to Friday, Hockenson arrived at the Vikings facility early and stayed until late, and did everything he could to get himself ready for the game.
It was a good investment. Hockenson’s nine receptions were the most catches made by any Vikings tight end at the start of 2018. Hockenson was the only Vikings tight end surpassing 70 yards receiving after Tyler Conklin did it in the sixth week of the season, which was a full year ago. Imagine how efficient he could be when the Vikings have the TE screen game in order, given that Hockenson’s three catches resulted in a negative 8 yards.
“I tried my hardest this week to learn everything, I really did,” he added. “That’s kind of the standard I put on myself, to be a guy that if they needed me, I would at least know what I was doing. That was a big emphasis for me this week, to be ready when my number was called, and I was able to do that.”
For Hockenson this was doing everything possible to understand the Viking’s offense. From Tuesday night until Sunday morning, he was working mostly starting from the time he woke up until the moment that he went to bed. He recorded play calls as well as other activities on his phone, and listen to them repeatedly so that he could be prepared in the event of a need.
“When it came out of Kirk’s mouth, I wanted it to be second nature so I didn’t really have to think about it,” Hockenson stated. “Just going to the line so I could actually read the defense and understand things that were going on as well. It really wasn’t too bad today. The last four days have been a grind, but it’s been awesome. I definitely wouldn’t change it.”
“Once I got into the huddle, after the first play, I was very comfortable,” he stated.
Hockenson acknowledged a great deal of praise to Blough the teammate he played with for the past three seasons in Detroit. Blough and Hockenson have played in various teams together, so Blough helped Hockenson to learn about this. Being able to see the world from the viewpoint of a quarterback was important, Hockenson said. Blough was able to connect various concepts and plays to the things they’ve worked on in the past Lions offenses.
“Him just having the quarterback knowledge and understanding reads and where they’re looking and what we’re doing helped me a ton this week,” Hockenson stated. “I met with him last night to go over everything and he was like ‘You’re ready, dude. You got this.’ That meant a lot to me, to have the confidence to come out here and do it.”
It was not just Blough or only Angelico. Vikings all of the coaches and players members helped Hockenson adapt to his new environment. Thielen said it was “unbelievably impressive” for him to master the game plan so quickly. Justin Jefferson has a message to him prior to playing “If you ever have a brain fart, just let me know and I’ll tell you (what to do).”
Hockenson’s ability to stop man defenses in the intermediate and short regions of the field proved crucial for the Vikings during Sunday’s game particularly when it came to third down. As he gets to know himself with the offense more and becomes more comfortable with the game, his participation will make the offense more perilous than it was this season. A combination like Jefferson (115 yards, including an interception), Hockenson, and Thielen (67 yards) in the passing game are extremely difficult to stop even without considering Dalvin Cook as well as K.J. Osborn.
After securing victory only the second time this year, Hockenson can’t be happier to be there.
“This has just been awesome,” said the player. “My recent three days are amazing and the players in this locker room are amazing. They’ve helped me throughout the process of learning the offense and also in understanding everything. It’s an awesome group of players to hang out with.
“This locker room, these coaches, these people, the community, just hearing the fans out there and how they travel. I mean, they’re already yelling my name. It’s pretty sweet and I’m really happy to be part of this organization and part of this team. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”