New Circumstances Have Claiborne Excited

When the Vikings host Dennis Green and the Arizona Cardinals tomorrow, there will be many subplots, but one that might go largely unreported is the return of Chris Claiborne to the field. He says he has a lot to prove after a frustrating season in 2003 and with a lot of changes surrounding him.

Chris Claiborne has quickly become the oldest returning player in a young Minnesota linebacker corps. He was extremely limited during the second half of the 2003 season due to problems with his Achilles tendon. He had a bone spur the size of half a golf ball removed from his heel at the end of his Achilles tendon. This week he finally received a new pair of shoes fitted especially to give him relief.

Another thing that is sure to help him is the new, softer AstroPlay Turf the Vikings will be playing on for the first time.

"That's a hard surface [that used to be at the Metrodome], and that's what happened to me — that hard surface took a toll on my foot. I'm looking forward [to the new turf]," he said.

There is plenty new around Claiborne this year. He has new coordinator and linebackers coach in Ted Cottrell, a man with 20 years of NFL coaching experience, and Claiborne appreciates Cottrell's familiarity with the position.

"It's more linebacker friendly in the fact that, in certain situations he knows after coaching linebackers all these years, this is a hard position to put the linebacker in or this is an adjustment we need to make here," Claiborne said. "So I can come to him and say, ‘You know, coach, I can understand what you want out of this here, but this is a bad situation for me because anything this way I have this gap but I also have this guy to the flat.' So he allows me to have a little leeway in maybe moving or changing an alignment to have that next gap over to maybe help me on certain passing situations because it's hard to have a gap all the way on the other side and have a guy to the flat. Things like that, it's good to have him not only as our coordinator but our [position] coach."

Claiborne also has a new position to learn, playing on the strong side this year after playing on the weak side last year.

He's learning to play closer to the ball this year, and also said the new position means he has to work with safeties more in coverage and even communicate more with the middle linebacker.

That new guy next him in the middle is E.J. Henderson, a second-year player with no NFL starts. On the other side of Henderson is likely going to be Dontarrious Thomas, a rookie. So while nearly everyone looks to the youth of the linebackers, there is Claiborne hoping to pleasantly remind followers that he can still be a big-time playmaker.

"I'm happy to sneak up on people. I think I did that last year early. I snuck up on them and made a lot of plays and they were like, ‘Oh shoot, he's here,'" Claiborne said. "As long as the team knows what I do for the defense, make plays, which is more important than anything, it doesn't matter about the other things."

The younger linebackers are leaning on him and Keith Newman, the only other veteran with real NFL experience, but Claiborne likes the fact that teammates are relying on him on the field and in the classroom.

"I appreciate that," he said. "I've been around a lot of years where they didn't want that out of me, where they just wanted me to play out on the field, but I have more knowledge than I had before and I'm more prepared."

The preparation of the linebackers under Cottrell has been obvious on certain days during training camp. They have either been in position to make the play or, as Cottrell has been coaching them to do, quickly shutting down their engines and getting back to being a part of the play. Is that the newfound speed in the younger linebackers or a better alignment under Cottrell's experienced leadership? Probably a combination of the two.

Either way, if Claiborne can stay healthy — or maybe get fully healthy — the play of the linebackers could be a strength of the Vikings defense this year.

"I'm not fully 100 percent, but I'm close. I feel good. I'm not limited, but I get sore," he said. "As far as explosion, I'm getting there. It's just getting into the football shape. I made sure I got as trim as possible [coming back from injuries during the offseason]. I worked hard. I was definitely motivated to show people I could bounce back."

His first opportunity to do that is fast approaching.

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