Gerald Hodges has never played middle linebacker. Not in peewee. Not in his high school days in New Jersey. And not in his four years at Linebacker U.

“I never thought I’d be playing middle linebacker, either,” Hodges said.

But when the Vikings’ first-string defense takes the field against the Cowboys on Saturday, Hodges will get the first start of his life at middle linebacker.

The Vikings have given starts to Audie Cole and rookie Eric Kendricks at the position this preseason. But coach Mike Zimmer also wants to get a look at Hodges, who impressed as a reserve at outside linebacker last season.

After all, Hodges might be one of the team’s three best linebackers at the moment, and that would be one way to get the 24-year-old onto the field.

The coaching staff warmed to Hodges last season after he made a bunch of plays when filling in for weak-side linebacker Chad Greenway or strong-side linebacker Anthony Barr. He made 66 tackles, batted down seven passes and returned an early interception for a touchdown in the win over the Jets.

This spring, Hodges impressed the coaching staff with an improved attention to detail in the classroom and also when he practiced with more discipline.

“I think they know I love the game of football and I think they’re starting to believe and trust in me that I’m able to go out there and play top-of-the-line football,” Hodges said. “So I’m going to continue to earn their trust.”

Zimmer first started giving Hodges some reps at middle linebacker early in training camp three weeks ago. This week was the first during which Hodges received significant practice snaps at that spot.

Hodges said the transition’s biggest challenge has been getting used to new alignments and diagnosing different pre-snap reads. But “once the running back has the ball, it’s just play football from there,” Hodges said.

Zimmer, too, downplayed the difficulty of Hodges making the switch.

“I don’t know how tough it is, honestly,” he said. “When I was [coaching] in college, I had a nose tackle move there and he played pretty good.”

Hodges’ audition against the Cowboys might be limited to only a dozen or two snaps because Kendricks will replace him when the Vikings use sub packages. But Hodges knows this is “definitely a huge opportunity.”

“First snap, I’m going in there and playing like a starter,” Hodges said.

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