Henderson Biding Time On Weak Side

E.J. Henderson still feels like a middle linebacker and wants to be a middle linebacker, but he is accepting his newfound role as a starting weakside linebacker with professionalism and productivity.

E.J. Henderson has mixed feelings about the move he made from backup middle linebacker to starting weakside linebacker.

The decision to move Henderson to the weak side brought both excitement (because he'd have a chance to start again) and disappointment (because he wouldn't be at his desired position).

"More excitement because I'd have a chance to get on the field, a chance to play with the other 10 guys. That was what my goal was," he said. "I'd love to play the middle, but however it worked out."

Last year, when Henderson was learning middle linebacker under fire, it appeared that the weakest part of his game was in coverage. Even so, he says he wasn't surprised by the move the Vikings made in putting him on the weak side.

"I'm pretty comfortable out there, but it's not like you've been playing it all your life. It's going to take some getting used to," he said.

Head coach Mike Tice is already pleased with the results of the move.

"There are a lot of positions that are up to expectation or beyond," Tice said. "(I'm) very pleased that the Henderson thing worked out well. Now we have a bunch of linebackers with roles. We have seven linebackers that have roles on our football team right now – that's pretty damn good. I don't think we have had that in the past. We know linebackers are playmakers on defense. Yeah, I like where we are at."

Henderson's career began as a second-round draft pick who spent a season learning under the tutelage of veteran middle linebacker Greg Biekert, a player who was quick to diagnose plays and intelligent about the calls he made on the field. During his rookie season as an apprentice, Henderson led the Vikings with 27 special teams tackles. But Biekert's final season in the league saw an obvious decline in his physical abilities, so passing the torch to Henderson was a natural progression.

In 2004, Henderson's first year as a starter, he led the team with 125 tackles and had seven tackles for loss as a middle linebacker. He was the youngest player to lead the team in tackles since Jesse Solomon did that in 1987 as a second-year pro. Still, the Vikings had reservations about how quickly he was progressing as a field leader able to make the right adjustments before the snap of the ball.

As the 2002 winner of the Butkus Award as the nation's top collegiate linebacker and Bednarik Trophy as the top defender, his physical abilities have never been called into question. But now, instead of mixing it up in the middle-of-the-field traffic, Henderson's responsibilities will be a bit different.

"(The weak side) is a little more relaxed because you don't have to call the defense and set the front. But then you've got to walk out on the receivers, so you play a little bit more in space," he said.

So far, the results have been positive. He accepted the Vikings' decision to bring in veteran middle linebacker Sam Cowart as the starter, putting Henderson in a backup role. And later, when the coaches weren't satisfied with the results they were getting from Dontarrious Thomas and Raonall Smith on the weak side, Henderson willingly made the change of address there.

Still, he holds out hope of becoming a starting middle linebacker again, and with Cowart's contract situation up in the air after the 2005 season, that could come as soon as next year.

"I'd like to be in the middle because that's where my heart's at. That's where I've been all my life, so don't forget about me there," Henderson said.

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