In his rookie season in 2004, defensive end and first-round draft pick Kenechi Udeze registered five quarterback sacks. In his second season a year later, Udeze played in just five games.
Just five weeks into last season, Udeze felt the expectations of a super sophomore season come crashing down when he suffered a season-ending knee injury that required microfracture knee surgery.
It took all summer – including several minicamps – for him to gauge it, but Udeze is running and playing at 100 percent. After a disappointing sophomore year, Udeze has heightened hopes for an impressive third season in the NFL.
"It's taken a long time to get that whole injury thing off me, but I'm good to go," Udeze said. "The guys next to me are doing a good job and trying to motivate each other and we have to get that defensive line prepared for the season."
That defensive line Udeze refers to includes Pat and Kevin Williams at tackle, and Udeze and Erasmus James at end. It is a foursome that includes three first-round picks by the Vikings. It is also a line where the bookends are vitally important … to the entire defense.
"It's important how (Udeze and James) play," safety Darren Sharper said. "I think they can carry the team. Those two guys can create a lot of turnovers. Those defensive ends can get up the field and cause some easy turnovers."
Udeze is happy to hear teammates talking about his significance. Sitting on the shelf for two-thirds of last season, then rehabilitating his knee, Udeze occasionally wondered when his knee would totally heal.
"I got it out of my head when we started minicamp," he said. "I was still kind of hesitant then, but I'm good to go now. I was good to go about two months after the first minicamp. I was kind of like shell shock at first. People walk around thinking they're Superman, but injuries are part of the game and you have to bounce back."
Head coach Brad Childress doesn't see a "bounce" in Udeze's step but he doesn't see a limp, either.
"I saw nothing to lead me to believe that he's got any problem," Childress said. "Not gimpy, nothing."
After a rookie season with 42 tackles and five sacks, his limited time last year before the injury allowed only nine tackles and one sack in three games. With a little luck – and health – he hopes to eclipse his rookie numbers, and Udeze's health is one reason the Vikings hope to continue their defense's trek upward.
"With this team, we set really high goals and you want to achieve those goals at the end of the season and we came up a little bit short last year," Udeze said. "But this season, with the new coaches and the new system and new players, I feel that this team should make a vast improvement from last year."
Udeze Traveling Long Road Back
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