This isn't where E.J. Henderson thought he would be.
Don't get him wrong. In an ideal world this is exactly where he would want to be. But being selected in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings just seven months ago, Henderson never imagined he would be such an intricate part of the team's defense so soon.
Henderson has seen his playing time steadily increase since Thanksgiving.
This month, he and Mike Nattiel are the two linebackers in the nickel defense. It's an odd position for him, something that is foreign to most non-first round rookies, to be out on the field when it matters while his veteran teammates are standing on the sidelines watching.
"At first, this wasn't realistic," Henderson admitted. "We had (Greg) Biekert out there, who was doing a pretty good job. But as time went by, me and Mike got more comfortable out there and we started to excel on special teams, and then we started to show we could do it on defense in practice.
"They tried to give us a chance to play and give Biekert and those guys a little rest. Anything we can do to give the older guys a little breather, we'll do."
Think the Vikings' brain wizards expected Henderson's rapid progression? Listen to Vikings director of college scouting Scott Studwell on draft day: "He may not be an immediate impact player for you, but he's potentially going to be the kind of player you want to step behind a veteran player like Biekert. … It is a position that is going to take some time, but he has proved that he is a quick study."
Studwell's foresight is dead on.
The Vikings personnel department appeared to be encouraged over the potential teacher-student relationship between Professor Biekert at starting middle linebacker and Henderson as his pupil.
The plan may have worked, but the transition could not have gone smoothly if Biekert would have created turbulence over seeing his own playing time reduced because of Henderson.
"I would've thought it would've been tough for him when they take playing time away from him, but actually it's been the total opposite," Henderson said. "He's definitely been my mentor. He answers any questions I have. He's been a coach on the field and a coach off the field. I listen to Coach (Brian) Baker, but then Biekert can put it into more of a player's mind.
"He's definitely been my right-hand man. He's helped me out tremendously."
So, too, has Nattiel, his fellow rookie.
"We're out there together on the nickel," Henderson said. "We have each other's backs. I knew Mike even before we were drafted through different things over time. But we depend on each other. If he sees me down, he tries to pick me up. If I see him down, I try to pick him up."
Baker, the Vikings' linebackers coach, recognizes the maturation and growth — physically and mentally — by Henderson.
"I've been most excited about the way he's changed his approach to things," Baker said. "He's starting to understand why we do what we do and where people belong."
Nattiel said that even as a first-year player, he is starting to get into a groove.
"It is very easy right now," Nattiel said. "You just take it one day at a time and try to get better on each day that you go out and practice. On Sundays, it is all-natural, just go out and play and that is what we do. Go out and practice hard every day, and on Sunday it pays off."
Henderson said the only bigger blessing than the playing time he has been offered would be a couple of playoff dates in January.
"It's like in college, when you don't want to go home early," Henderson said. "Nobody wanted to be home for the holidays; you wanted to be in a bowl game. Just making the playoffs is literally what we have been striving for since training camp, and really we have a chance to do that.
"If we get into the playoffs, we have a chance to do things. The playoffs are right in our hands, and if we make it we have to go to the Super Bowl."
Henderson Motivated To Succeed
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