Erin Henderson is approaching the next couple months as if the middle linebacker spot is his. To date, there is no reason to think he's wrong.
Henderson took all the first-team reps at middle linebacker in the organized team activity Wednesday that was open to the media. For now and the foreseeable future, Henderson is the Vikings' starting middle linebacker, just like his older brother E.J., now retired, was only two years ago.
"That's what the depth chart says and that's what the coaches tell me. That's how I feel when I step out there. That's what the guys look at me as when we're in the huddle. I would have to say yes," Henderson said when asked if the job is his.
There are still cautionary statements being thrown out by head coach Leslie Frazier, but for now there is no reason to think Henderson will be seriously challenged. Second-year linebacker Audie Cole and rookie Michael Mauti could receive some reps with the first team at training camp, Frazier said, but "only if they do enough to show that they're worthy of that."
Mauti isn't able to practice yet as he recovers from his third surgery to repair an anterior cruciate ligament, and Cole hardly saw only one defensive snap last year.
"Erin will be the starter and they will have to show that they've done something to pique our interest to see how they'll handle a starting role," Frazier said.
In other words, the job is Henderson's to lose and it's a responsibility he has been seeking this offseason.
"It's nothing awkward at all. It's still football. The majority of the game is already played from nickel, so I've seen it from that perspective," said Henderson, who was the starting weakside linebacker the last two years and essentially split the nickel reps with Jasper Brinkley last year. "And when you get a chance to go out there and play it in the base, you have to just let some of those things roll over."
However, there are differences, he admits. The biggest challenge may be making the mental upgrade from knowing one linebacker position to understanding the positioning of all three on any given snap and defensive call.
"When you play the (weak side), you're kind of like the lone man out on the defense. You've got just one thing to do. Playing the (middle), you have to understand what everyone's doing, where the different pieces are and when they move a piece where our pieces go to," he said. "I think that's one of the biggest things I'm getting used to right now. But I don't see it being too difficult."
Frazier outlined several areas to which Henderson will have to adapt during his position switch.
"In our base defense it is a little bit different than when he played the nickel position. There are some things in the run game that will require more of him than in nickel situations. There's going to be a little bit of a learning curve there going from outside to inside, and the other aspect is what we ask of a middle linebacker from a leadership standpoint and that can't be underestimated," Frazier said. "You're the guy who everybody kind of looks to as the quarterback of the defense and when you're doing that every down, it's a little bit different than doing it in third-down situations or certain second-and-long situations. That part of it means as much as what you do functionally, what kind of leader you are."
Henderson is more vocal and outgoing than his brother, and those traits should serve him well in his new role. Playing the position is one thing. Directing others will be his responsibility before the snap.
He doesn't lack confidence in that area.
"That's pretty simple for me to just yell at people and tell them what to do so it's not a problem," he said with a smile.
"You're in charge of all the checks and everything else. Fortunately for me, you have teammates out there who are communicating and talking as well and see the same things that you see. A lot of the onus isn't always on you, but when it comes down to it, you have to be the one making the checks so it is more responsibility."
Henderson will have two more weeks of OTAs and then the mandatory minicamp to get used to his new responsibilities. After that, there will be some time off and then hitting the challenge in full stride during training camp.
He is confident his past experience making the calls as a middle linebacker in the nickel defense will help.
"It's helping with my transition. It's not something new to me. I've stood in front of the huddle and called it already," he said. "I know what it's like when the Dome gets jumping on a third down and how loud it can be and what you have to do in order to make sure that everybody's where they're supposed to be. So having that experience has given me the greatest confidence."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Henderson appears unencumbered at MLB
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