As a second-round pick, many figured Kendricks would be the starter at middle linebacker, but to date veteran Audie Cole has been used there more than Kendricks in the base defense. Now Gerald Hodges is also getting some time there. But Kendricks is hoping he’s the main man there when the regular season opens against the San Francisco 49ers.
“In a perfect world, that’s what it is, but right now I’m just working hard to make that happen,” Kendricks said.
“I embrace competition. We have a group of great linebackers, so all these guys are helping me get better.”
Hodges, who played weakside linebacker when Chad Greenway was dealing with injuries and strongside linebacker when Anthony Barr was lost for the end of the season, is the relatively new addition in the middle.
Who is starting there now, or even in the first few preseasons games, matters little to the coaching staff. For now, it’s all about evaluation.
“I think we’ve still got to continue through this process. That’s what we’ve done consistently throughout the time we’ve been here,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “Coach (Mike) Zimmer does a good job of recognizing a kid’s skill set, what he brings to the table and then trying to get the best guy on the field. … Gerald played some at backer last year at sub. He’s been doing a good job focused in here at training camps. He’s played both the Sam and the Will at the outside positions, so we just moved him inside to give him a chance to compete there and give him a chance to compete at the position.”
Kendricks, at 6 feet and 232 pounds, is considered a bit undersized at middle linebacker, but his athleticism lends nicely to the coverage responsibilities that come with duties in the nickel defense.
“There’s a lot more room to run in nickel, I would say. It’s not as tight of alignment and a little more freedom,” Kendricks said.
“You’ve got to know the down and distance and things like that, where your nickel is at, how things fit off of that. That’s football at the end of the day. You’ve got to hit someone, you’ve got to run a little bit and you’ve got to get to the ball.”
Fans that haven’t attended training camp yet this year may get a chance to see a heavy and early rotation at linebacker early in the preseason games. Zimmer and Edwards don’t just want to see their possibilities at different positions against second- and third-team offenses that often accompany the early action in the first few preseason games.
“We’re going to look at guys and we want to see them against their quality starters rather than late in the game. That’s what coach is talking about,” Edwards said. “Sometimes you get guys in there with the third unit and it’s not a true evaluation of what they’re going to see on Sunday. That’s why you see us moving a lot of guys around on the depth chart, trying to get those matchups to see how they match up against some of the guys that are more experienced.”
NEWMAN IN THE NICKELOne of the reasons the Vikings have begun working veteran Terence Newman in some nickel situations is because Captain Munnerlyn is once again dealing a minor injury.
“We’re trying to get our best people on the field, look at the skill sets,” Edwards said.
But after a 2014 season that Munnerlyn admitted was disappointing, his first in Zimmer’s defense, Edwards said Munnerlyn is understanding the concepts better this year.
“A lot more consistent, a lot more in what we’re trying to do leverage-wise in coverage, whether it’s a communication underneath with a linebacker to make sure we get the correct pass-offs,” Edwards said. “He’s been able to stay inside and play the run more physical. You can see those things as we’re going through training camp and he’s really trying to pay attention to those details.”
The former UCLA linebackers aren’t living together this year because, as Kendricks put it, “our budgets have expanded a little bit.”
“We don’t want our guys to be out there and worried about matchups,” Edwards said. “We want to line up and be able to go play fast and not be able to think as much.”