Defensive lineman Kevin Williams is expected to be a part-time starter this year, depending on the formation the Vikings defense uses on the opening play. Linebacker E.J. Henderson isn't likely to get any starts -- barring injury -- on defense this year. But last week both completed the most intense learning period for NFL rookies -- the first camps of their professional careers.
Head coach Mike Tice says defensive linemen have a better chance at starting because theirs is more of a plug-and-play position, whereas a linebacker -- a middle linebacker especially -- has to know and call out more assignments for other players. Despite their differing expectations for 2003, the Vikings' two draft choices the last three weeks to learn and have the professional game slow down for them.
"The first week was an adjustment," Williams told VU. "After that I've been pretty much knowing what to expect. It's been pretty cool and everything's been going great.
"It's typical, when you come into a new setting it's different and you're learning a lot of new stuff, the way they do it here compared to four or five years in college. It's been, yeah difficult and no not really."
Said Henderson, the second-round linebacker: "It was a learning experience trying to get used to the system and the speed of these guys in the NFL. I wasn't overwhelmed, it's just a matter of time."
While Henderson may have to wait to contribute heavily on defense, he was among the first names special teams coach Rusty Tillman mentioned when VU asked him about the young guys he expects to contribute to the coverage units.
Each of the young defenders have their own players to model after. For Henderson, playing behind Greg Biekert had the rookie learning a few things from the 11-year veteran. "Consistency. Knowing his play book and knowing what everybody is doing on defense, seeing how hard he works," Henderson said of Biekert.
The last week of the three developmental camps, Henderson got his shot with the first-team defense as Biekert left for more recuperation time for his surgically repaired shoulder. That was Henderson's opportunity to put the first two weeks of learning to use and make some defensive calls. "It helped a lot with my recognition," he said. "All the linebackers, we're a tight group -- (Chris) Claiborne, Biekert, (Henri) Crockett -- me and Mike (Nattiel), we're the young guys, so they've kind of taken us under their wing."
While Williams is in the thick of the trenches with the beefy linemen, Henderson -- known as a physical run stopper from his college days at Maryland -- was getting used to the finesse and speed of NFL players.
His biggest transition from Maryland to Minnesota, from NCAA to NFL? "The play book,, just knowing the play book. I haven't put on the pads yet, so (size) is really hard to tell, but speed, you could say speed. As far as size and strength I can't really tell yet. …"
"You've got some real fast running backs in (Larry) Ned, (James) Wofford and (John) Avery, so trying to catch those guys. Chris Claiborne and Biekert, they're impressive."
Great athletes come in all sizes, and Williams was dealing with the bigger ones on the Vikings' now-veteran offensive line. It's not the size that impressed him, it was the athleticism of the big men on Winter Park's campus.
"Everybody's a great athlete out here. We're out here going full go and everybody's staying off the ground. In college you have a lot of guys on the ground, bad athletes. (Here) you're surrounded by a lot of great athletes."
"I'm trying to watch all of them. Everybody does something different. You can watch what they do great and how it might help you pick up on it."
He is studying the defensive calls he needs to learn and the various techniques employed by different players and by coaches than those he got used to at Oklahoma State. The nuances in technique can be subtle, but the differences in the overall philosophy between a college defense and an NFL defense are what he is trying to pick up on before the action goes live in preseason.
"Just the way you encounter some blocks," Williams said of the differences between OSU and the Vikings. "You might learn it a certain way in college and they teach you a totally different way to do it here to help the other guys and free the other guys up. You've just got other guys playing off you, so if you don't do it right you might have you and another guy in the same spot."
Williams is given the additional task of learning three different positions as well. He is expected to give Chris Hovan an occasional breather in the base defense and play nose tackle in the nickel defense. He is also playing some defensive end. For being 6-foot-5, 304 pounds, he is showing his versatility.
Just like Henderson, Williams is also showing maturity with a team-first attitude.
"I want to contribute as much as I can, and when I get in I want to help out with what's going on on the field. I'm ready to do whatever," Williams said.
That's the attitude share by most of the Vikings rookies, especially their first two picks from the draft.
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