When the Vikings used their second-round draft pick on linebacker Eric Kendricks, the feeling was that it would only be a matter of time before he became the full-time starter.
The moment will officially begin Sunday. Despite playing more snaps than incumbent starter Gerald Hodges the last three games, Kendricks became the starter last week when the Vikings traded Hodges to San Francisco. However, the changeover began in Week 2, not Week 5.
In the regular-season opener, Hodges played 83 percent of the snaps while Kendricks was in on just 14 percent. Over the last three games, Kendricks had a higher percentage of playing time in each game – 68 percent to 36 percent against Detroit, 53-50 vs. San Diego and 57-43 at Denver.
Technically, Kendricks wasn’t the starter until Denver, but in reality he was since Week 2. He was on the field more, especially at crunch time of games. Now that he has officially been given the starter tag, he’s not going to change what got him to this point.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Kendricks said. “Obviously, this game’s important. I’m going to continue to do the same things I’ve been doing up to this point and play hard.”
Kendricks was looking to win the starting job and was a bit taken aback when he heard the news that the Vikings had traded Hodges. He was hoping to earn the starting job on his own merits and, although he felt he had done his part to earn his spot, he didn’t see the Hodges trade coming.
“I wasn’t expecting anything, honestly,” Kendricks said. “I’ve been preparing like I would be starting, but I was as surprised as anyone when I heard that (Hodges) had been traded. I feel like I developed the attitude at UCLA that you always practice as if you’re going to be the starter. I have that opportunity now.”
One of the selling points Hodges had in finding his way to the field was the rapport he has developed with budding superstar Anthony Barr. As teammates at UCLA, they developed a shorthand with one another and a confidence that one would have the other’s back on plays that were coming their way.
Kendricks feels their familiarity with each other is something that will be a benefit for both in the new-look middle of the Vikings defense.
“We have good chemistry together,” Kendricks said. “I think if you watch us out there, it’s pretty obvious. We’ve played together for some time and I think that shows. We’ve always had fun playing together and I’m looking forward to doing more of that now.”
For his part, Barr is happy to have his former college roommate once again lining up alongside him. Like Kendricks, he feels their communication skills that were borne out of their practicing and playing together in college will translate to the Vikings defense.
Perhaps the most important thing in Barr’s mind is that the level of understanding they have of each other’s game will help hasten the transition as Kendricks joins him in the starting lineup. Asked if he feels a sense of responsibility for his new running mate, Barr wasn’t shy about his feelings on the subject.
“I think so,” Barr said. “It’s a comfort thing. To go out there with somebody that you’ve spent so much time with, it makes him feel more comfortable and hopefully allows him play faster and not think so much.”
The biggest transition for Kendricks hasn’t been the speed of the game – nobody plays faster than the teams in the Pac 12. It’s been the knowledge and complexity of the offenses and defenses in the NFL. If college football was a 400 level course, coming to the NFL has been master’s dissertation.
It’s a completely new animal for Kendricks, based as much on mental acuity as athletic skill.
“It’s been different this season,” Kendricks said. “In college, you’ve always been the man and you’ve been calling the shots. Now you come to a new team and a new defense as a rookie. You’re at the bottom of the totem pole. You don’t know any of the plays and you have to learn things all over again – different schemes and different formations in the NFL. You have to start over, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job of doing that.”
He has already gotten his feet wet against a couple of the game’s most prolific quarterbacks – Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. He was shocked to see both of them basically calling out the defensive play that had been called based simply on seeing the formation that was called.
It’s one thing to be a willing student, but when you’re going up against a couple of the masters of the NFL wars, it can be an eye-opener for a young player.
“It’s been different,” Kendricks said. “They’re calling protections, calling checks and doing all sorts of things I never even thought of. In college, you get the play and roll with it, especially in the Pac 12 where everything is about tempo. I didn’t know how much of a chess match it really is until now.”
On Sunday, when the Vikings come out of the tunnel for their game with the Chiefs, Kendricks will do so as the unquestioned starter in the middle of the Vikings defense. He is now the man in the middle for both the base defense and the nickel packages.
He’s earned the trust of Mike Zimmer and the defensive coaching staff. Now comes the hard part – living up to that faith. He’s going to come out motivated to prove everyone who believed in him right by proving himself worthy of being a starting middle linebacker in the NFL.
“This is what every player dreams of – getting your name announced at the beginning of a game as a starter,” Kendricks said. “I’ve been working hard since I got here to get up to speed and give the coaches the confidence that I can get the job done. They think I can do the job that’s needed. Now it’s up to me to live up to that confidence they’ve shown in me.”