Jasper Brinkley returned to the Minnesota Vikings after one season with the Arizona Cardinals and found many of the same faces as teammates but not much else familiar with the defense.
When the Vikings elected to keep Erin Henderson over Brinkley in the 2013 version of free agency, Brinkley left for the Cardinals, who offered a two-year contract. He lasted only one season there before he was released and returned to the Vikings.
"We don't have any pads on right now, but I feel like the defense is set up for the linebacker," Brinkley said after a practice earlier this month. "I really, truly feel like that."
Brinkley made several references to the "linebacker-friendly" defense under new head coach Mike Zimmer, who is bringing his defensive philosophies from Cincinnati. Brinkley was drafted by the Vikings as a hard-hitting linebacker out of South Carolina, but the middle linebacker in the Tampa-2 defense they were running under Leslie Frazier is asked to drop deep into coverage.
Brinkley returned to the Vikings in March as a middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense, but his responsibilities will be much different this time around.
"The only difference is not running down the pipe in the Cover-2. Other than that, the defense is very linebacker-friendly," he said.
"The middle linebacker vs. the Cover-2 and Coach Zimmer's defense, now it's more involved in the passing game and in the run. It's going to be a lot of fun."
To this early point in the process, Brinkley appears to be the favorite to win the starting job since the release of Henderson following his second arrest for drunk driving.
Brinkley has been the middle linebacker most often used with the first-team defense during offseason practices, but he knows the job won't just be given to him because he has the most experience of the middle linebacker candidates.
"I think Coach is giving everybody an opportunity, me and Michael (Mauti) and the other Mike, Mike Zimmer (the linebacker), they're giving each guy the same amount of opportunities," Brinkley said. "I don't think there's one guy that they're going to just give it to. I think you're going to have to earn it, and I think it's always been like that my whole six years in the league."
The Vikings selected Brinkley in the fifth round of the 2009 draft and he started four games. He didn't start any in 2010 and sat out the 2011 season after needing hip surgery. In 2012, he started 15 games and registered 99 tackles. Last year with the Cardinals, he started only three games and had 27 tackles.
After re-signing with the Vikings this offseason, he said all he wants is an opportunity and he is getting that chance to reclaim a starting spot.
"You just have to come to work every day and bring your lunch pail. Coach Zimmer wants a bunch of blue-collar guys and no ‘me' guys," Brinkley said. "The great thing about it is you have guys that come to work every day, that stay and do extra work in the weight room and do extra stuff on the field. When you've got guys that are doing that, that shows you how hungry they are and the willingness to do whatever it takes to win. That's one thing you can control is a guy's will."
Zimmer, the head coach, has been pleased with Brinkley's work ethic as he tried to immerse himself into a new defensive scheme.
"Watching on tape is a little different than when you actually have the opportunity to coach him, but the thing I've been impressed with Jasper is he studies very, very hard, he doesn't make very many mistakes and … the least mistakes, the smart football teams typically win," Zimmer said. "It's hard to tell what kind of physicality he has now without the pads on, but he hasn't made a lot of mistakes. He seems to be getting the calls right. For the most part he knows where to get other people lined up and, like all of them, there is a few alignment errors instead of being here they're over here half a yard or something. Those are all things we're trying to clean up."
Brinkley said it is just a matter of time before he is completely comfortable in the new defense.
"I think it comes into play with preparation. It can be as long as I make it," he said. "We've got great coaches here and they really simplify and make it easy to understand. Everything else is left upon the players."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Brinkley working to regain starting status
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