The buzz following Friday's win by the Vikings over the Buffalo Bills was the play of a middle linebacker. That linebacker, however, was rookie Audie Cole, not starter Jasper Brinkley.
Brinkley has big shoes to fill as the starting middle linebacker for the Vikings. His daunting task is made worse because of the history of the Vikings. In their first 30 seasons in the NFL, they had just four middle linebackers as regular starters – Rip Hawkins, Roy Winston, Jeff Siemon and Scott Studwell. In the 22 years since, it had been a relative revolving door until E.J. Henderson made the position his own.
The Vikings opted not to re-sign Henderson, turning the starting job over to Brinkley, who missed the entire 2011 season with a hip injury. He is trying to establish himself as a starter just as Erin Henderson did last year when he was effectively handed the starting job at strongside linebacker and asked to raise his game accordingly.
Brinkley is, by his own admission, still shaking off the rust, but he believes that, with his comfort level on the field increasing, his aggressiveness and instincts will kick in after his eyes and feet start to show him the way.
"I've been away from the game for a year," Brinkley said. "Each preseason game I take it and go with it, because I know it's a learning experience for me. I have to train my eyes again and the footwork. That's the first thing you lose when you're away from the game for a year – eyes and footwork. Each and every week we play a preseason game, all of that is starting to come back fast."
There was no doubt that his debut this preseason was less than auspicious. The San Francisco 49ers ran for 260 yards against the Vikings – an appalling total for a team that prides itself on its run defense. As the man in the middle of it all – at least the first 150 yards of it – Brinkley was held somewhat responsible. However, when the Vikings held the Bills to minus-6 yards rushing in the first quarter of Friday's game, Brinkley was held somewhat responsible. Head coach Leslie Frazier said he saw significant progress in Brinkley from Week 1 to Week 2 of the preseason
"I thought he made tremendous leaps from the week before in game action against San Francisco and what he did against Buffalo," Frazier said. "You could see him begin to get his legs back under him, you could see the quickness and the burst that we've been wanting to see and we'll get him hopefully quite a few reps in this San Diego game so he can gain confidence and his teammates will continue to gain confidence in him as well, but this preseason is a big deal for him with all of the time he has missed."
Brinkley noticed the improvement as well when he watched film. With training camp over, the day-to-day indoor grind begins and he is ready to accept that phase of the challenge as the regular season draws near and give the extra effort needed to get better.
"We're back at Winter Park," Brinkley said. "I can do some stuff after practice. I can do some stuff in the meeting room, as far as my thought process and how I would see some of the plays develop."
Brinkley's first outing as the starting middle linebacker was nothing to save on the DVR. He probably has already erased it. Friday was much better. However, in both instances – the good vs. Buffalo as well as the bad and the ugly vs. San Francisco – Brinkley was in the middle of it.
"Being the middle linebacker, you definitely feel that responsibility," he said. "We wanted to go out this past week and establish that we can play run defense and I think we did a good job."
It's too early to give a grade on Brinkley three quarters of play into a preseason. If anything, it would be incomplete. He essentially flunked one test but got his grades back up after another. The improvement curve is heading in the right direction and Brinkley is confident he's going to get "his eyes" back by the time the Vikings open the regular season Sept. 9 against Jacksonville.
"It all boils down to my eyes," Brinkley said. "If I'm messing up, then I don't have my eyes in the right place. Last week, (it was) a whole lot better, light years better from Week 1 so that's the thing I'm optimistic about. I'll be ready for the first game."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Brinkley getting eyes, feet in position
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