MANKATO – Things always are interesting when it comes to the Vikings, but the 2014 season was a particularly wild one at Winter Park. There was the Priefer scandal, the Peterson saga and a few notable arrests. On the field, there was a new coach, a quarterback competition and some costly early-season injuries.
So much happened, one might be forgiven for forgetting that a starter got shot.
Nose tackle Linval Joseph was fortunate to escape an August 2014 shooting at a downtown Minneapolis nightclub relatively unscathed. The memory of that night affected Joseph much more significantly than the entry and exit wounds from that hot bullet. But the injury, which happened after the preseason opener, was another setback for Joseph.
Throw in the offseason shoulder surgery, a change of scenery and a new scheme, and needless to say, Joseph never quite felt comfortable in his first season in Minnesota.
“Last year, I had a lot of things holding me back,” he said. “This year I have a clean slate.”
With the harrowing shooting and his less-than-ideal Vikings debut behind him, Joseph feels like himself again, which is a good thing for a Vikings defense that ranked 25th in the NFL against the run last season. His coaches and teammates are raving about him, and he hopes to anchor a defensive line that feels it has plenty to prove in 2015.
“I feel great, man. I feel great about the defense,” Joseph said earlier this week, sweat dripping from his bushy beard after a steamy morning walk-through. “Everybody’s healthy. I’m healthy. And I’m just glad to be here.”
Joseph understandably doesn’t want to talk much about the incident at 400 Soundbar early last Aug. 9.
With Joseph and several teammates chilling in the back of the club, a man opened fire inside the nightclub, wounding at least nine people. One man, who was believed to be the intended target in the gang-related shooting, died from his wounds a month later.
Joseph, seeking cover, flopped onto the floor. A stray bullet pierced his left calf.
At the time, Joseph called the shooting “very scary” and said it changed his outlook on life. But now, a year later, the 26-year-old says he has moved on.
“It’s behind me. It’s just how it goes,” said Joseph, who has two nickel-sized scars from where the bullet entered and exited his leg. “Things happen and you just have to move on. If you dwell on the past, you’ll never get over it.”
After sitting out the team’s final three preseason games, he started all 16 regular-season games. Because of all the time he missed in the spring and summer, it took him most of the season to find his footing, but he played well down the stretch for the 7-9 Vikings.
He finished the season with 47 tackles and three sacks, but a good nose tackle’s impact cannot always be captured within a boxscore.
“For us, he does a lot of dirty work. He’s not a stat guy really,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s a guy who helps keep linebackers clean and allows you to play a little bit smaller guys sometimes at linebacker. [Nose tackles] take on double teams. They have to fight at the line of scrimmage.”
Zimmer added: “Linval had a great spring, a really, really impressive spring, I thought. … I think if he continues on the same path that he’s on, he has a chance to have a good year.”
While the injuries were a factor for Joseph a season ago, Zimmer said that Joseph playing in a new scheme shouldn’t be overlooked. The coach said that more often than not, players who sign as free agents, as Joseph did for $31.5 million last March, perform much better in their second season with a new team than the first.
“Second year in the system, I know all the plays and I’m ready to play, I’m ready to ball with my guys,” Joseph said. “I’ve been around these guys for a year now, and now it’s really, really clicking. And everybody is going to click to another level this year.”
Friend and fellow starter Sharrif Floyd, who has bonded with Joseph through not only a shared position by also a mutual appreciation for fishing and traveling, concurs.
“I feel like he has come a long way since last year,” Floyd said. “Toward the end of the year, he started to play really, really well, at a high level. And I think he will pick up where he left off.”
Said Joseph, “I feel way better now. I’m more explosive and I’m just ready to go.”