Massive guard Toniu Fonoti will be making his first start for the Vikings Monday night in Lambeau Field.
Since the Vikings traded a conditional late-round draft pick to the San Diego Chargers to acquire Fonoti, the guard who is listed at 350 pounds but reportedly weighed in over 400 pounds when he came to Minnesota has been inactive for four games while recovering from a broken hand.
Fonoti will start in place of left guard Chris Liwienski, who has been struggling, according to head coach Mike Tice.
“I think it’s going to help us,” running back Michael Bennett said of Fonoti. “He’s a big guy, wide body – big, athletic guy. He’s been itching to get in and get some work done.”
Thursday was Fonoti’s first practice, and the fact that the Vikings already have him as their starting guard is an indication of the frustration level with the production of the offensive line.
“The defensive line doesn’t want to practice against (Fonoti),” Tice said. “That is what I know. Does he know the offense? No, but what is the difference right now based on what I’m seeing on tape. We might as well throw him in there and see how it goes. If that doesn’t work, then I have a guy that has been in the system and deserves a chance too. Maybe he deserves a chance ahead of Fonoti, but Fonoti to me is a beast. I may as well unleash the beast and see if it brings another attitude to our front that we need. We don’t have an attitude in there. We need an attitude. Maybe this big guy will bring us an attitude.
The Chargers and Fonoti had attempted to work out a long-term deal earlier this year because Fonoti is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. When talks broke down, the focus turned to potentially trading him, but that was temporarily shelved when Fonoti suffered a broken hand.
Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams, who said he weighs in at 329, played against Fonoti when Williams was with the Buffalo Bills and Fonoti was with the Chargers. Fonoti reportedly came to the Vikings at more than 400 pounds, but he denied to Viking Update he was that heavy. However, he declined to give his weight, as did Tice on Thursday. He is listed at 350 pounds.
“That’s a strong guy right there. He makes you use extra strength that I don’t want to use in practice,” Williams said. “He’s a solid guy, so that’s going to be good for us. He’s kind of nasty out there, so I hate going against him. I’ve got to use the extra strength against him that I don’t want to use – I’m like, ‘Come on, now. It’s just practice.’ He’ll be a big, big plus for us.”
Fonoti looked surprisingly agile on his feet Thursday in practice, especially for a player of his size.
“He comes off the ball pretty hard. The only guy I probably faced bigger last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have some pretty big guards,” Williams said.
Like Tice, Williams isn’t sure how much Fonoti really needs to know the offense at this point, especially with his size and athletic gifts.
“Just tell him where to go and he’ll go get it,” Williams said.
Tice said Fonoti’s conditioning might not be that great yet, but he wasn’t willing to stick with Liwienski any longer. In fact, Liwienski will be deactivated Monday night and Anthony Herrera will serve as the main backup.
“I don’t want to define Chris’ performance to this point. I brought Chris Liwienski in here in 1998 personally. I developed him personally. He has had a tough year, but he is not the only one,” Tice said. “I decided to make a change. Obviously I adore the guy. I brought him in here in 1998, helped develop him. He is not having a good year so I have to make something happen.”
If Fonoti is active for six games or starts three games, it is believed the conditional draft pick the Vikings gave up to acquire him will be elevated from the seventh round to a sixth-rounder.