Photo: Aj Mansour (KFAN)
By: Aj Mansour | KFAN.com
Mankato, MN - There's no question that the NFL today is a quarterback's league. That would explain why, when heading down to Training Camp, the "A" topic on the hearts of most fans was the progression of third-year QB Christian Ponder. But for the Vikings this season, the interests heading to Training Camp were more accurately split with the A(1) topic being Ponder's growth and the A(2) topic being focused on the battle for Middle Linebacker between Erin Henderson, Desmond Bishop and all other challengers.
Now this would make sense considering that the middle linebacker position is considered to be "the quarterback" of your defense. Not only are they smack dab in the center of your defensive set, but they are likely relaying the formations from the sidelines, barking out adjustments and leading the defensive unit to what they hope will be a successful season.
So far, the battle in the middle has not exactly gone as planned.
It was assumed that Erin Henderson would start camp in the middle, that is only until veteran inside linebacker Desmond Bishop got a decent grasp of the defensive scheme. According to what head coach Leslie Frazier said after practice Friday morning, the thoughts of moving Desmond to the middle have all but completely gone away!
Thursday afternoon, we saw our first instance of reaching for middle linebacker depth as Erin Henderson temporarily left the field with a strained groin and second-year player Audie Cole filled in with the first team at middle linebacker.
"To say that we'd be pretty complete and satisfied with where we are depth wise at the MLB position, I couldn't say that today," Frazier said after Friday morning's walkthrough session. "We need to see those guys work. This is Erin's first year as a full time middle linebacker and Audie has never really played any games other than the preseason."
As of Friday morning, the depth chart at middle linebacker goes Erin Henderson, Audie Cole and rookie Michael Mauti. Desmond Bishop has not even gotten a sniff at middle so far this camp. And while depth may not be Frazier's building block of success in the middle right now, he is encouraged by what he's seeing out of Henderson in the middle.
"He's done some impressive things," Frazier said. "He had some opportunities yesterday in our live scrimmage where he had a chance to make some open field tackles and he did. I like the leadership that he's showing."
As far as his physicality and skill set go, Henderson is looking more and more like a MLB each and every day. As for that leadership that Frazier mentioned, there may still be some room to grow.
"He's beginning to mature in that role," Frazier added on Henderson. "It's taken a little time but he realizes how he has to handle certain questions that the guys are going to ask him. There was a time one of the other players asked him something about one of our defenses and he gave him a short answer. I know Alan went up and talked to him about that and said, 'you're in a different role now. When those guys talk to you, you've got to listen and then speak almost as if you're a coach. Otherwise they'll stop asking you questions because they don't want to get into any confrontations. I think he's growing in that role."
Erin Henderson joined Paul Allen (click here to catch the full interview) on the KFAN perch Friday morning and shared with the crowd that he is much more comfortable in the middle than he ever was on the outside.
"You have to have a certain swagger about yourself when you're playing the middle," Henderson told KFAN. "I think I'm able to let that come out more now that I'm in control of the huddle full-time and in control of the defense full-time. I'm able to be the person that I am all the time and not have to hide it or put it away because I'm not in a position to be the leader or I'm not in position where I'm supposed to be speaking or taking over things. Now it's my show and I can pretty much run things the way that I want to run it as far as the defense goes. That's what gives me that extra little oomph about myself and I'm feeling pretty good out there right now."
Looking at the rest of the depth at linebacker, Frazier has a few things to say about some of the options in the middle and the young guys who are looking to help out the team.
On Audie Cole...
"I like what Audie is doing. I like how hard he works, he's a bright guy, he plays physical, has real good length. We've just got to keep giving him opportunities, get him in some game situations like we will this preseason and see how he responds. What he's done up to this point in training camp, he's done a good job."
On Michael Mauti...
"Michael has really come along. We were concerned of course with the knee injury and how soon it would take him to get back and get on the field and be productive. It seems like every day he's gaining more and more confidence in his knee. He's moving more freely now so that's encouraging. He has all the leadership skills you would look for he has all the physical talent you would like. But, coming off of a second ACL surgery is no easy task as a football player. He's making dramatic improvement and we're much more positive now then we were when we opened camp."
On Gerald Hodges...
"I think he is a guy that is going to be a very good special teams for us early on. Eventually, he will probably get some reps on our defense. He's doing some good things, he's a smart guy, has very good range, has the ability to cover the backside of the backfield"
Aj Mansour covers Minnesota Sports for KFAN.com. Feel free to leave comments and questions regarding this post in the space provided below. For Vikings updates and breaking Vikings news, follow Aj on Twitter. @AjKFAN