Experience, Emotion New Assets of E.J.

In his second stint as a middle linebacker for the Vikings, E.J. Henderson is finding different responsibilities, but he is embracing the aspects of the position that have always attracted him to it. See what Henderson had to say about his return to the middle, the differences in the Tampa-2 defense and his maturity as a player.

Some might consider it a risky move to take the player that was easily the team leader in tackles last year and switch positions on him. But, actually, that player – linebacker E.J. Henderson – had been interested in that move all along.

Henderson entered the league hoping to become a starting middle linebacker, and at one point (in 2004) he was. This year, Henderson will get an opportunity to move back to the middle, but in a Cover-2 system in which he has never player "Mike" linebacker before.

"I never thought about the Tampa-2. Really the only people doing it back then (when he entered the league in 2003) was Tampa so I never really thought about it," Henderson said about becoming a middle linebacker in the Vikings' version of the Tampa-2. "The percentage of time that we do Cover-2 is going to dictate how easy or how hard it is. I think it's something I can get used to. It's not something I haven't seen anybody else do that's just a totally better athlete than me. I've seen different guys do it – DT (Dontarrious Thomas) did it, Napo (Napoleon Harris) did it. I'm sure I can do it."

The risk might be taking a weakside linebacker who compiled 142 tackles last year – 44 more than his nearest competitor on the team – and moving him away from that playmaker position in the Tampa-2 defense. But the Vikings felt so confident in their analysis of Henderson that they gave him a five-year, $25 million contract extension last year and allowed veteran Napoleon Harris to leave via free agency.

It's been almost three years since Henderson played middle linebacker for former defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who didn't run a Cover-2 scheme. In 2004, Henderson led the team with 125 tackles and seven tackles-for-loss in his second season in the pros – his first full season as a starter, when he played middle linebacker.

But in 2005, Cottrell went to the veteran well again and acquired Sam Cowart, who ran Cottrell's system with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. Henderson moved out to weakside linebacker, where he ranked second on the team with 102 tackles.

He calls the move back to the middle of the defense a "welcome" one, but he admits that the biggest challenge will be getting used to running down the seams of the defense in pass coverage, one of the primary duties of a middle linebacker in the Cover-2 scheme.

But there is a big appeal for Henderson playing middle linebacker.

"I like being in charge; I like being in the middle with the focus being on me from the beginning. I like being able to direct guys," Henderson said. "That's what I've been doing since I've been playing football – I've been in the middle. The only adjustment is being that vocal guy compared to the past couple years when I was able to lay back … just lay back and play. Just coming out and being more vocal, being more of an emotional leader, a vocal leader, I think is something I'm going to have to embrace early on so when it comes to camp I'll be used to doing it."

So far, head coach Brad Childress seems pleased with Henderson's progress.

"He's done a good job communicating, picking it up, because he is the main communicator with both the linebackers, the back end, and the front," Childress said. "It's a natural position for him. Even though he's quiet by nature, he does a good job of overcommunicating clarity with those guys because as the signal-caller, everybody has got to understand. He's doing a good job with that."

The question mark with Henderson returning to the middle was always concerning his personality. Off the field, he communicates as a soft-spoken, yet confident, player. So being in the middle of 10 other professional football players that are counting on him for instruction and leadership during a game might seem to run contrary to his personality.

"Not really contrary," Henderson replied. "Eventually I had to think about it first coming out in OTAs, but once we all start to jell with each other, I think everybody will get more comfortable with me being more vocal, but it shouldn't be that much of a transition.

"It's something you've got to embrace as the Mike backer. For me, it was just getting back used to it … I'm doing it now for the betterment of the defense for us to be successful. I think I've got to embrace it and do whatever it is that needs to be done."

Henderson also indicated that the concerns about his ability to take charge and be vocal stemmed from his early go-round at middle linebacker in the NFL. It's been a few years since then, and he seems to be more confident with his abilities now.

"Eventually you're going to be one of the older guys," he said. "This is my fifth year so I'm seeing a lot of younger faces, a lot of guys that came in after me, so it's easier to speak to them because they're looking up to you. With the older guys, I've been with them a year or two, so it's a little easier experience getting used to things and seeing different things. Being in different situations, it's easy to help coach up the younger guys."

At the end of the team's practices in June, Henderson was hoping for the opportunity to sit down with new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and "pick his brain." Henderson said his communication with Frazier would be an important part of his success as a middle linebacker.

But the best part of renewed position remains the same:

"The best part of being in the middle is being that guy, kind of being the quarterback of the defense," Henderson said. "When things go right, a lot of times people look at you. But when things go wrong, you've got to step up and take the blame if it's your fault. If it's a hectic situation, it's up to you to get it right. If not, you've got to look in the mirror and face yourself."

Viking Update Top Stories