For Eric Kendricks to succeed in his new full-time gig, he often will need to work his way through a crowd.
On Monday, though, there were simply too many bodies in his way.
The rookie middle linebacker, now the starter officially, stood at his locker wearing only a towel and had one eye on the showers when one reporter became three and the media throng tripled in size again. Half-naked but patient, he answered all their questions before slipping through the double doors.
Across the way, the stall once occupied by Gerald Hodges, who shared the position with Kendricks, already had been taken over by rookie center Nick Easton. Hodges, his nameplate and gold teeth are gone, and the locker room was a little quieter with him now in San Francisco.
All that Hodges left behind was a giant opportunity for Kendricks.
“I’m just going to take it and run with it,” the second-round draft pick said.
The surprising trade that sent the playful Hodges to the 49ers last week for Easton and a sixth-round pick initially caught the Vikings players off-guard. That included Kendricks, who found out about the deal, which cleared the way for him to become an every-down player by his fifth NFL game, on social media.
After finalizing the trade last Tuesday, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman explained that the team’s confidence in Kendricks and comfort level with their other young linebackers were factors in moving on from Hodges, who started at all three linebacker positions over the past 12 months.
Six days later, coach Mike Zimmer was in no mood to give his thoughts on the trade and how it would affect his linebacker group going forward.
When he strolled onto the podium after a post-bye-week practice that he seemed to think was crisp enough, Zimmer told the assembled media that he had missed them, calling it “a lovefest.” That lovefest ended soon thereafter, right around the time when Hodges was first mentioned by reporters.
After four questions about the linebacker situation yielded terse answers, awkward silence and no mentions of Hodges by name, Zimmer said, “I didn’t get this many questions [about one person] when my father died.”
Asked about Kendricks earning his trust so quickly, he responded, “He’s a good player. I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
Kendricks set a UCLA record with 481 career tackles and in 2014 won the Butkus Award, which is awarded to college football’s top linebacker.
The 23-year-old, who is listed at 6 feet and 232 pounds, lasted until the 45th pick this spring in large part due to concerns about his size and subsequently his ability to fight through blocks at the NFL level.
Hodges started three of the team’s first four games as the Vikings opened in their base defense. But after the season opener, Kendricks, who would sub in for Hodges in the nickel package, actually played more snaps than Hodges, 123-89.
Kendricks ranks fourth on the Vikings with 19 tackles, 17 of them solo, and he brought down Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for his first career sack in the team’s 23-20 loss before the bye.
“I thought he’s done pretty well,” veteran linebacker Chad Greenway said. “Obviously, it’s a little bit of baptism by fire, but it’s time to go play. … You have to go out there and get the experience at some point. So this is going to be his position to go out and play. Hopefully, he does well.”
The Vikings eventually could move Kendricks to weakside linebacker once Greenway is no longer the starter there. But for now, he figures to be an every-down player at middle linebacker, something the Vikings have not had the luxury of employing in recent seasons.
“All the opportunity is mine right now. I’m extremely excited,” Kendricks said after getting caught in traffic on the way to the showers.
Unlike his head coach a few minutes earlier, Kendricks showed plenty of patience at that perhaps uncomfortable moment. The rookie hopes it will carry over onto the field now that he has the middle linebacker job all to himself.
“I always feel like the speed of the game wasn’t that much of an issue to me. … It’s my patience that is definitely a key,” he said. “As long as I get more patient and know when to be patient and when to go fast, I’ll fit into this defense.”