Twenty months have passed since Minnesota Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley has played in a regular season game.
The date was Jan. 1, 2011. Since then, Brinkley endured a lost season when he was placed on injured reserve with a hip injury, so you'll have to forgive him if he's a little eager to get back in action Sunday when the games count.
"Oh, I'm like a kid all over again," he said.
But with the lack of action comes a need to prove himself as a reliable starting linebacker. Not to himself, because he remains steadfast in his self-confidence, but the coaching staff spent this preseason slowly gaining more confidence in his ability to become an aggressive player once again after missing so much time.
"What he did in the San Diego game gave us an indication of the Jasper we expect to see, the Jasper when we made a decision to name him as the starting middle linebacker," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said about Brinkley's performance in the third preseason game. "Those were some of the things we expected to see, the downhill attack, the ability to turn and run with receivers, to go from sideline-to-sideline, a smart football player, a guy who has potential to be a leader."
During the offseason, there was confusion with Brinkley. He missed some practices because of what Frazier said were lingering issues with the hip injury that took Brinkley out of the 2011 season. Brinkley said it was a groin injury. Frazier reiterated it was a hip issue.
All of those conflicting reports led some to wonder if Brinkley and the coaching staff were in unison, but Brinkley said he believes they have confidence in him now.
"The coaches know me and they know what I bring to the table. They could have easily got me up out of here (last year) once I had the injury," he said. "For them to keep me around and continue to tell me that they trust in me and believe in me, that was big for me so I'm going to let them know that they made the right decision."
While it's been 20 months since he played in a regular season game, it's been even longer – 32 months – since he started a game and got extensive action on defense. That came at the end of the 2009 season when Brinkley was filling in for starter E.J. Henderson after a gruesome fractured femur ended Henderson's season as the Vikings were marching toward the playoffs.
In two days Brinkley will be running onto the turf at Mall of America Field and be in the middle of a defense with something to prove.
"It means so much because a lot of other guys are depending on me. There's 10 other guys depending on me to get them lined up and make an adjustment," Brinkley said. "… It's kind of a big leadership role for me, but it's something I'm ready for. I've played middle linebacker all my life."
Despite being in the NFL since 2009, Brinkley still has only those four starts from the 2009 season to his credit. Before and after his fill-in duty for Henderson, he has been almost exclusively a special teams player and backup linebacker.
"We need to continue to see him grow and some of it will be based on his experience," Frazier said. "He's still a guy who hasn't had a lot of starts in our league so we have to keep putting him out there and getting him experience so he can continue to gain confidence in himself, along with his teammates gaining confidence in him as well."
Brinkley has confidence in his abilities. It just took time this year to regain confidence in his health.
"The hardest thing for me was just trusting my hip and knowing that I did all the necessary procedures and everything to get the strength back in that hip, just go out and play," he said.
Brinkley feels a sense of responsibility to his defensive teammates, especially getting a young secondary lined up properly. He's focused on getting others around him in the right position and playing aggressively, but he isn't worrying about his doubters from the outside anymore.
"The people around here know what I can do and what I'm capable of," he said. "Everybody has their own opinion and I can never live by someone else's opinion."
A good start to the season, however, would help turn around those outside the organization who wonder if he will be an effective starter. Sunday will be the first time in 32 months he gets that opportunity.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Brinkley excited to prove himself
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