Sid Hartman
See more of the story

Eden Prairie football coach Mike Grant said he believes the Vikings made a great hire in Todd Downing as a senior offensive assistant. Downing was the Oakland Raiders’ offensive coordinator last season.

Downing’s career path shows how determined he was to become an NFL coach.

Downing was a backup quarterback under Grant at Eden Prairie before he went to the University of Minnesota to study business communications. After being at the U, Downing returned to Eden Prairie and got a coaching position under Grant.

“I know him well,” Grant said. “Todd was a player for us that when he got done and went to college, he wanted to come back and coach so he coached for us for a couple years, I think in our ninth-grade program, and did a great job.”

While Downing was back at Eden Prairie, he told Grant he wanted to work in the NFL in any capacity.

“I know he wanted to work with the Vikings and get into pro sports, not necessarily even coaching,” Grant said. “We had some connections over there with the Vikings and he got an internship working over there.”

Downing started with the Vikings in 2001 as a research and development intern. He stayed in that role for two seasons, then became a football systems analyst for the team in 2003 and 2004.

“He’s a really, really smart guy that was doing different things and started helping out with the coaching when Mike Tice was there and some other coaches,” Grant said. “And he just was willing to do the work.”

Jump to coaching

Downing’s first official coaching position came with the Vikings in 2005 as an offensive quality-control coach.

That was a transitional year for the Vikings. They had traded Randy Moss in the offseason and started 1-4 with Daunte Culpepper at quarterback. Then Culpepper was hurt in a Week 7 victory over the Packers at home and Brad Johnson took over. Johnson would lead the team to a 7-3 finish and a second-place finish in the NFC North, but their 9-7 overall record didn’t get them into the playoffs.

Tice was fired after the season and Brad Childress took over. Downing jumped to the St. Louis Rams, where he was a defensive and special teams assistant for two years before becoming the defensive quality control coach in 2008.

Downing joined the Detroit Lions staff in 2009 as an offensive quality-control coach and was a quarterbacks coach from 2010 to 2013, then held the same position with the Buffalo Bills in 2014. He then jumped to the Raiders, where he really made his mark working with Derek Carr as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 2015 to 2017 and helped Carr be named to three consecutive Pro Bowls.

The Raiders finished 6-10 last season with Downing as offensive coordinator. He was let go with the rest of the staff when Jon Gruden was named Oakland’s new head coach in January. Downing joined the Vikings staff in February.

“[Downing] has had a great career. He has been doing it a long time now,” Grant said. “He has worked his way up from being an assistant ninth-grade B coach to an offensive coordinator in the NFL and now with the Vikings, and I think it’s a great hire. A smart guy that has worked hard to get where he’s at. We’re awfully proud of him that he has gotten himself to this point where he’s one of the better young coaches in the league.”

Grant said that in looking back at Downing’s career progression, going from a backup quarterback to a Vikings internship to an NFL offensive coordinator, there is only one person to credit.

“We helped [him] get in with the Vikings and he just took it from there,” Grant said. “It was all of his hard work that got him to this point.”

Kepler adjusting

Twins right fielder Max Kepler improved in almost every major offensive statistical category last season from his rookie year in 2016.

Kepler hit .243 with a .312 on-base percentage, 19 home runs, 32 doubles, 69 RBI and 67 runs scored, after he hit .235 with a .309 OBP, 17 homers, 20 doubles, 63 RBI and 52 runs scored as a rookie.

But Kepler knows his game can reach a whole other level if he can figure out how to hit lefthanded pitchers as well as he hits righthanders.

Kepler hit only .203 against lefties in 2016, but that number dropped to .152 last season. Twins hitting coach James Rowson said those struggles started to get in Kepler’s head.

Kepler said before heading to spring training that the No. 1 improvement he is looking to make is handling lefties better.

“For me personally, I want to go to the opposite field with more power and stay healthy throughout the whole season,” he said. “I think it’s just more of a mental thing. A lot of people say lefty-lefty is hard. It kind of got to me mentally, so [I’m] just going to go and try to attack them like I do righties.”

Ready for the season

Kepler said he has no doubt he can put up even more impressive numbers this season.

“For sure,” the 25-year-old from Germany said. “You just have to be aware of the stuff you have to get better at and invest and work on those things and be open to learning and seeing new perspectives and trying to adjust as fast as possible.”

Kepler talked about how he approached the offseason.

“You start with weights and try to put on some mass and then you pick that swing back up and work on the things you had to adjust on during the season,” he said. “I didn’t make too many changes. [My] approach is pretty similar, going to work on hitting against lefties and try and adjust as fast as possible this season.”

Kepler has become one of the game’s best right fielders. He committed only two errors in 138 games in the field last season, and his seven assists were tied for fifth in the American League.

“Try and go a season without errors and throw guys out and make them scared so they don’t run on you,” he said about his goals for 2018.

And while right field has proven difficult for many players at Target Field, with the high stone wall overhanging the field, Kepler said he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“No, I love it. I love it,” he said. “There is so much going on, but once you get better at it and master that high wall out in right, it’s fun.”

Kepler said believes the Twins have a chance to get back into the playoffs and improve on their 85-77 record.

“We’re going to do it again this year,” Kepler said.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. shartman@startribune.com