Q&A: With LBs coach Brian Baker

Linebacker has been a position of concern since the Vikings released Ed McDaniel and allowed Kailee Wong to leave via free agency during the offseason. With basically a whole new group, linebackers coach Brian Baker gives his thoughts on the transition.

Brian Baker, who joined the Vikings as their defensive line coach last year after spending four years with the Detroit Lions defensive line, is coaching linebackers for the Vikings this season. Baker also coached the defensive line with the San Diego Chargers in 1996.

Baker's coaching roots run deep, with six years of NFL coaching experience and 12 years coaching at the college level, despite only being 40 years old. He started at the University of Maryland coaching linebackers in 1984-85, then coached fullbacks at Army in 1986, then served for nine years at Georgia Tech under Bobby Ross. His connection to Ross also brought him to San Diego and Detroit. He is also an active member of the American Football Coaches Association.

Q: How pleased are you with the play of the linebackers?
A: They have been progressing the last few weeks and that's the thing we wanted. Initially we were slow with our progress. I felt we were kind of inconsistent and up and down on some things. We kind of challenged them and said, ‘Hey, we are going to progress at a steady pace, but we have to progress. We can't afford to slide back at all.' I'm proud of the fact they met the challenge and have done that pretty consistently. Some of the young guys are not included in this completely, but for the most part the progress has been pretty consistent and they are getting better and better. Right now, we look like we are going to be there in time for (the opener against the Bears) Champaign.

Q: Any surprises in training camp?
A: I don't know if really anybody has been a pleasant surprise. We have been happy that our Mike (middle) linebacker is starting to pick things up because obviously he lines up our defense. That is Henri Crockett. Patrick Chukwurah seems to be getting comfortable with playing linebacker and his reads over a tight end. He has gotten better when he's been off the ball, so his progress has been there. The Will (weakside) position has probably been the most disappointing, only because of the injuries. The guy who was projected to start there (Raonall Smith) gets hurt and then his backup (Lemanski Hall, who was cut yesterday) gets hurt. Now we are playing with Jim Nelson, who does a nice job for us, but he's kind of the jack of all trades. He has played every linebacker position available at some point in this camp. To his credit, he has done it all pretty proficiently and that I'm really excited about. It allows me to sleep a little easier.

Q: Did you expect this to take some time with guys such as Crockett and Chukwurah in new spots?
A: Really, all of them as a group [are in new spots]. Lemanski Hall, although he's a veteran linebacker, has been a veteran Sam (strongside) linebacker for most of his career and primarily a special teams guy. Last year I think was his first as a full-time starter, as far as for every game, and that was at Sam. Really, we had three guys doing things they hadn't done before, and that was with the starting group. You go to the backup group, you have a rookie (Nick Rogers) who was a defensive lineman in college, he's playing the middle. … The whole group really has been one of those things where our work was cut out for us right from the beginning. At this point, I'm cautiously optimistic. That's kind of where I am on it.

Q: Was there concern about Crockett and the time it took for him to adjust from outside to middle linebacker?
A: Yes, because he was inconsistent. When your Mike linebacker is inconsistent, that makes your whole defense inconsistent. In other words, had Chukwurah or a Will linebacker showed what Crockett showed at one time, then I wouldn't have been as concerned because it's cleaning him up. When your middle linebacker is inconsistent in terms of his alignment, assignments and that kind of stuff, then it affects the back end in terms of the secondary and the front in terms of the defensive line because he's so involved in everything. Plus, he calls the defense. He's our quarterback. That position is obviously a very important position to the overall scheme, and when he was inconsistent we were very concerned.

Q: When did you see Crockett start to pick things up and get more comfortable?
A: Probably the week before our second scrimmage. That week leading into the second scrimmage he had two or three really good days, then he scrimmaged really well and then went out and played well again against Buffalo, and he played pretty good [against Tennessee]. He missed a couple of tackles that he should have made. Those were a couple of mechanical things. But as far as getting us lined up, adjustments and that kind of stuff, he did a nice job. We feel like he will be OK for us.

Q: How about the training camp performance of Raonall Smith?
A: That's the thing. Big things were expected, and then he did some things to kind of feed our anticipation. He is a big guy (6-2, 244 pounds) that can run and hit, and he made some plays. We were saying, ‘OK, we were right about this guy.' Then all of a sudden he got hurt. He got hurt at the beginning of training camp, missed (practice time against) Kansas City, and then he came back and really did some nice things to the point where we elevated him to a starter. Then after that he gets hurt against Buffalo (sprained right shoulder), and now he has missed a lot of work that way. It's hard to be excited about a guy that spends more time in the training room than he does on the field. But there is no question about his potential. We hope to get him back and we expect him to do well once he gets back.

Q: Is there still time for Smith to claim a starting position for the season opener against Chicago on Sept. 8?
A: I don't know. That's still very gray, to be honest with you. I don't know. … There are so many variations that, to be honest with you, it wouldn't be fair for me … there's a thousand scenarios. Is one of them him starting? Yes. Let's put it that way.

Q: In this defense, will we see the linebackers play a different role than they did in previous years?
A: I don't really know how to compare them. To me a linebacker's role is the same in every defense. The first job of the [middle linebacker] is to get the defense lined up and get everybody deployed correctly. Then to be able to play off of the defensive linemen and their proper gaps and responsibilities, back up the defensive line and be strong on underneath coverage vs. the pass. I don't think that's any different than anybody else's linebackers in the league. We are expecting our guys to be doing a lot of blitzing and that kind of stuff. That's more the personality of our coordinator (Willie Shaw). Our coordinator is a guy that likes to pressure offenses, give them different looks and come at them in different ways. So yeah, our linebackers will be a part of that. But other than that, they are going to be doing what good linebackers should do.

Q: How much does it mean to have a guy like Jim Nelson, who is so versatile?
A: As I said earlier, he's a guy that gives me a chance to sleep at night. You feel like, hey, if your Sam linebacker is hurt and there is nothing else going on, you can put Nellie there and he can play Sam. If the progress of Rogers is still slow in the middle and we go into a game and Crockett needs a blow, I know Nellie can go in and play the middle because he is a little further ahead than Rogers because of the transition. He should be further ahead and he is. Then again, at Will linebacker, like we have done with two guys hurt, he goes out there and plays the weak side and played pretty well in the game last week. He made some mistakes, but, again, he has played all three positions and hasn't had a chance to really lock down on one, but at least he's a guy that can go and make plays. Nelson, to me, is a very valuable guy. He's also a very good special-teams guy, so his value to us is pretty significant.

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