While the offensive starters appear set – yes, that likely means rookie T.J. Clemmings at right tackle and Mike Harris at right guard – defense is where the biggest battles reside for starting spots.
Perhaps none is more intriguing than middle linebacker, where the rotation system has been place throughout the preseason.
Veteran Audie Cole got the start in the first two preseason games. Rookie Eric Kendricks made his first start last Saturday. And now Gerald Hodges, who made seven starts between both outside linebacker spots last year, is the newest player to give middle linebacker a shot.
Hodges knows it will be a different feel in the middle, but he’s looking to secure a starting job that isn’t the result of another player being injured.
“Usually when you’re playing the Sam or the Will, you only got one set of alignments for that down, but Mike backer, things change up as motions, formations change, you’ve got different alignments,” he said. “So just getting that down pat, but everything’s coming along great. I’m just looking forward to continuing to get better.”
Hodges just began the transition to middle linebacker a few weeks ago, so holding off on his starting opportunity made sense. Kendricks started out training camp as the No. 2 middle linebacker behind Cole but got his chance at the starting spot last weekend.
“I think he did good,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Kendricks earlier this week. “… As far as the (Oakland game), he fitted one thing wrong and then they got basically the same play again later and he got it right after we corrected him on the sideline, but for the most part he did alright.”
After this weekend, Vikings coaches will have given all three a chance to start with the first-team defense and likely will look to hone in on one starter. But, as Zimmer said, he can always make a switch after the first week of the regular season if his first starter doesn’t perform well.
The cornerback spot opposite Xavier Rhodes holds intrigue in Saturday’s game, as well.
To date, veteran Terence Newman has been the starter and his veteran savvy has shown in practices especially. In last week’s game, however, Oakland Raiders rookie Amari Cooper beat Newman for a 40-yard reception. Rookie Trae Waynes hasn’t been without his struggles, either, but he appears to be making progress after he was flagged for three penalties in the team’s preseason opener.
Newman still looks like the favorite, but defensive coordinator George Edwards said coaches are “aiming” for Waynes to be ready to start by the regular season, even if he isn’t ready yet.
“That’s what we’re aiming for, that’s what we’re all working for, but we’ll just take it from week to week,” Edwards said. “We’ve still got two more games to go and just keep evaluating it through the process.
“There is no substitute for experience, getting out there and having to do it under the lights against good competition week in and week out, so there is no substitute for that. Doing it out here at practice is one thing, but transferring it to the game is another. So from that aspect of it, we’re just looking for him to make the most of the opportunities we are able to get him at this point in time.”