Kendricks: Middle for now, but for how long?
Eric Kendricks was forced inside to middle linebacker early in his UCLA career because of an injury to a teammate, but he said that change in position was the best thing that could have happened to him.
He might have to get used to the versatility that move in college required.
Kendricks, the second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings last weekend, is expected to become their starting middle linebacker after the free-agent departure of Jasper Brinkley, but even that move might not have staying power.
“We’re going to start him at Mike (middle) linebacker and see where that goes. We believe that eventually, down the road, he will probably be a Will (weak-side) linebacker for us, but you never know,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Friday. “We’ve had a lot of times over my career, like we drafted a kid one year that was a middle linebacker and we played him at Sam (strong side) and played maybe two years at Sam, then we moved him to Mike. But we’re going to start him out at Mike.”
There’s good reason for that thinking. Chad Greenway, who has been a mainstay starting outside linebacker for the Vikings since his second season in the NFL in 2007, is entering the final year of his contract, and it could be the final year for him in the league. Kendricks is also considered on the lighter side for middle linebackers at 235 pounds.
“I’m pretty comfortable at (235),” Kendricks said. “I could play fast, I could play tough. I just feel comfortable at it. We’ll see if I need to gain weight; I’ve never had a problem gaining weight or losing weight, so we’ll see.”
Kendricks started his productive UCLA career at weakside linebacker and made the switch inside after the injury to middle linebacker Patrick Larimore, who suffered seven diagnosed concussions before giving up his football dream. Kendricks took over and fashioned an impressive collegiate resume on the gridiron.
He established the UCLA career record with 482 tackles, becoming the 15th player in Pac-12 Conference history to register at least 450 hits during a career. Among active NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision players, his 482 total tackles and 307 solo stops lead that contingent. His average of 9.27 total tackles per game rank fifth and his average of 5.90 solo stops per game rank second among active performers.
For now, however, the adjustment is on the mental side of things with a new scheme to learn.
“My thought right now is just getting my alignments correct and understanding the play calls and communicating with the D-linemen,” he said. “Everything is coming kind of fast right now, new terminology, so my focus right now is just getting the communication down.”
Zimmer, however, believes that transition can happen relatively quickly for Kendricks because of his instincts on the field and awareness in the film room.
“Kendricks is a very instinctive playmaker,” Zimmer said. “He makes a lot of plays. He’s very, very intelligent. You could tell that today in the meetings and when he was out here making the calls and getting things set up.”
He might not have started as a middle linebacker in college, but he has taken a shine to that role.
“I like just knowing what everyone has to do, commanding the front and everything like that,” he said. “I was kind of in my own world playing weakside backer and just thinking, focusing on what I had to do. And when I was moved to middle, I had to focus around the whole defense and it just allowed me to understand defenses as a whole.
“I’m open to challenges. It may be a little bit more challenging – of course it’s the NFL, so it’s going to be more challenging. I’m open for it and I’m going to work my butt off and do what I can for this team.”
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