Teammates encouraged by Brinkley's instincts

Rookie Jasper Brinkley is expected to get an opportunity to show his skills on defense as the replacement for E.J. Henderson. Having a fifth-round rookie at middle linebacker might be considered a risky proposition, but teammates and coaches expressed confidence in his instincts.

Long-term, the Vikings might have designs on finding a replacement middle linebacker with more experience than rookie Jasper Brinkley, who has three tackles to his name this season – all coming in late-game action when the outcomes had already been decided.

But players and head coach Brad Childress are expressing confidence in Brinkley's ability to take over for E.J. Henderson, who suffered an ugly fractured femur in the Vikings' loss to the Arizona Cardinals Sunday night.

"He's a hard-nosed guy. He's downhill all the time. I'd hate to be the guy he hits," said defensive tackle Kevin Williams. "We just get him caught up with a few things, I think he'll be fine filling in. You can't ask him to do everything E.J. did, but he has to play within himself and I think he'll do good."

Brinkley had 107 tackles in his first season at South Carolina, but a knee injury his junior year limited him to four games before rebounding for 65 tackles as a senior.

Brinkley was known as a hard hitter at South Carolina and his physical style of play induced the Vikings into trading up eight spots in the fifth round of April's draft to select the second-team All-SEC linebacker.

The Vikings don't run full-contact practices during the spring and early summer offseason workouts, but Brinkley showed his physical style early on in training camp. He has continued that reputation on the Vikings' special teams.

"He weighs 260 pounds. When he hits somebody, he does some damage," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He's a good player, got a lot of talent. He's worked hard on special teams. He's proven himself to us as veterans and I think if he goes in there and gets the start or whatever's going to happen, he'll be ready. He's a heady guy. He's going to be fine."

Childress described Brinkley, who has been active every game this year, as a combination of hard-hitting muscle and instincts.

"I think some of the things that you guys saw during training camp was that he is a thumper. I thought that he was one of the better hitters coming out of the draft," Childress said. "He played with heavy hands. He is a downhill linebacker, which is what we want our Mike (middle) linebacker to be and then still with the athletic ability and niftiness to be able to run the middle of the field like we do in our Tampa-2 defense. We like the things that we saw from him. He has recklessness and fearlessness and a pretty good instinct for where the ball is."

As would be expected with any rookie, it took Brinkley some time to learn the Vikings' Tampa-2 scheme, which calls for the middle linebacker to be athletic enough to turn and get deep quickly on passing plays.

"Definitely I'm comfortable with the scheme. Coming into it in camp it was taking a little adjustment coming from another defense. From training camp to the time now, it's all settled in with me," he said.

But knowing his responsibilities on a practice field and executing them under the glare of a game on Sunday can be two different things.

"The experiential factor is obviously what's lacking and it's always lacking for a first-time players," Childress said. "… He's done a good job of understanding the tempo of the game, special teams wise, which he didn't quite get early on and I am sure that there will be a calibration period in there with the speed of the game in the middle. He is a guy who is a natural middle linebacker. He is not a guy that you are picking outside the box."

Williams said the Vikings don't expect Brinkley to be Henderson, but the Pro Bowl defensive tackle expressed confidence that Brinkley knows what to do. Greenway said he and fellow starting linebacker Ben Leber will provide guidance for the rookie on the field.

"We'll be out there and it's going to be a group effort," Greenway said. "When you lose E.J., and he's always been the guy to do all those things and have the complete reins of our defense, that's the thing that you lose – that leadership. It's going to be a group effort and he's very capable of making those calls as well as the rest of us."

More than likely, the Vikings will have Leber wearing the "green-dot" helmet with the communication equipment to get the defensive calls from the sideline. Henderson had that responsibility at the beginning of last season and up until this point this year. When Henderson was lost for the final 12 regular-season games of 2009 with dislocated toes, Leber took on that responsibility.

Leber is also expected to now play in the nickel defense on a regular basis. For the first 12 games this year, that had primarily been Henderson and Greenway.

Defensive coordinators will likely test Brinkley's ability in the passing game, putting in run-down personnel on first and second downs and trying to test Brinkley in the middle of the field. But his teammates said the rookie is capable in the passing game as well.

"He shows a lot of instincts. He knows how to play the game, just raw instincts, not even looking Xs and Os. He knows how to play. Now it's just a matter of getting him some experience. The kid is strong, fast and knows what to do getting the football," Leber said.

"… He showed a lot of instincts as far as running Cover-2 and knowing where to go. There were a lot of times in training camp where we were surprised that he would pick up on things so quickly. I thought the passing game wasn't going to be a problem."

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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