In the offseason, assistant linebackers coach Pete Bercich was asked about linebacker Dontarrious Thomas. Bercich paused, then offered this analysis:
"Dontarrious is talented enough to be as good as he wants to be," Bercich said. "My expectations are very high for him. The game's a little big for him right now. He'll benefit being in the same system for another year. When the light comes on, things won't happen as quickly."
Thomas, a 2004 second-round pick of the Vikings, played in all 16 games (starting five) and made 49 tackles during his rookie season. Throughout the season it was unclear whether his playing time was by merit or necessity. Judging from Bercich's account, it appears Thomas had much growing to do from his freshman to his sophomore season as a Viking.
Through two games Thomas has made seven tackles this season. On the depth chart Thomas is listed behind E.J. Henderson at weakside linebacker. Thomas also plays in a variety of passing situations. His role will change Sunday.
Since Henderson won't play Sunday — he is still listed as doubtful on the injury report with a high ankle sprain — Thomas will make his first start of the season when the Vikings host the Saints at the Metrodome.
Thomas says he approaches practice like he always has. "I handle it the same," Thomas said. "I just stay focused and make sure I'm mentally focused for this game. Whatever happens with E.J. happens. I'll be ready if I have to start."
Since the offense has played poorly in both of its games this season it has been hard to gauge the revamped Vikings defense. They played well enough to win in the season opener, but too often looked lost — especially in pass coverage — last week against Cincinnati.
That could lead to concern now that Henderson is out and Thomas is in, but defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell told reporters Thursday that he has noticed improvement in his second-year linebacker.
"He's a lot more confident and he's playing a lot faster," Cottrell said. "He's ready to go."
Thomas admits he, like the rest of the defense, has plenty of room to improve. "I've played pretty good, but I can always make more plays," he said. "Anybody can always make more plays. We all can do a little better making more plays. If we do that, we can get better."
Thomas credits the additions of Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris as being a factor that should, in the long run, help stabilize the carousel that has been the Vikings' linebacking corps in recent years. With Henderson in his third season, and Rod Davis and Thomas both in their second seasons, some experienced players were needed to add to the mix.
"They've brought veteran leadership," Thomas said. "They've brought character to this linebacking corps. They're great guys and they've definitely helped us young guys along showing what it takes to get past what we're going through. Hopefully, we'll get this thing rolling."
Thomas hopes to make the most of his chance to start Sunday.
"This is a good opportunity for me to prove I can play this position," Thomas said. "I'm looking forward to it. If E.J. is out, I'll have to step up and play my role."
Thomas Ready To Roll
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