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.
As the Twins complete a rugged 10-game road trip tonight at Tampa Bay, they now have more home games than road dates remaining. That's important for a club that's been far better this season at Target Field than on the road.
Adrian Peterson missed the Vikings’ afternoon practice Wednesday to make a court appearance. Peterson was in Minneapolis at a hearing on a contempt motion filed against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell by the NFL Players Association in U.S. District Court.
The NFLPA believes Goodell ignored the collective bargaining agreement while disciplining Peterson last season after Peterson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault. Peterson and the NFLPA sued the league over the retroactive application of a personal conduct policy that was instituted after he was charged.
Center John Sullivan (back) also missed practice, as he has for a week. So did tight end MyCole Pruitt (knee), tackle Carter Bykowski (pectoral) and cornerback Josh Robinson (pectoral). Defensive lineman Shamar Stephen (knee) was back but a limited participant. Tight end Rhett Ellison left practice early with an unknown malady.
There was also a rare camp dustup when receiver Donte Foster and cornerback Josh Thomas had to be separated after a short battle.
The penultimate game of the NFL preseason is usually a dress rehearsal, with starters playing the first half.
But when the Vikings play at Dallas on Saturday night, coach Mike Zimmer says he won’t be thinking traditionally.
“I’ve never done it that way,” Zimmer said. “We really don’t game plan for it. … It’s still about us, and doing what we do and seeing if we can do it good against a team that we really haven’t studied much or anything like that.”
Because the Vikings played in the Hall of Fame game, they have five preseason games, and this will be their fourth.
The Vikings will have to cut to 75 players on Tuesday.
“We’ll start thinking about that more Sunday after the game,” Zimmer said. “[There's a] possibility of injuries, there are other reasons too — we’ve got to play another game, injuries, things like that.”
Defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, a second-year player who had an arthroscopic knee procedure earlier this month, was back at practice today in a limited capacity. Stephen should be ready for the start of the regular season, Zimmer said.
“He’s missed an awful lot of time,” Zimmer said. “He was really coming on, with some of the things he did early. But we’ll have to wait and see where he is when he comes back.”
Finally, Zimmer on his angry reaction after kicker Blair Walsh missed three field goals and an extra point last Saturday night in a 20-12 victory over Oakland: “Sometimes I get upset and I say some things to some players who aren’t doing what I want them to do. I think everyone who plays for us has a job to do, and we expect them to do that, whether it’s the kicker or the quarterback or the middle linebacker, we’re going to let him know when we’re not pleased. Sometimes it’s good to get a little pressure put on by the coach.”
Miguel Sano is a lot of things already, after only 45 major league games. He’s the Twins’ most dangerous hitter (we could argue this, but his approach, power and the way he’s pitched indicate it’s true). He’s a middle-of-the-order savior. He’s everything advertised and more.
But prompted by a tweet from Judd Zulgad last night indicating he thinks Sano is the choice for AL Rookie of the Year if the Twins make the postseason, I had to take a closer look at whether Sano is really a prime contender for that award.
First, the good: Sano is mashing. Of MLB rookies with at least 150 plate appearances this season, he’s first in OPS and slugging percentage. He has 12 homers — five of them on this road trip, trying his best to keep the Twins in the race. By sheer production alone, even in a small sample size, he’s making himself a factor.
Now, the bad news: there are a few pretty big obstacles in Sano’s way when it comes to the Rookie of the Year race.
The first: Carlos Correa, the shortstop for the Astros who fans will have the pleasure to see at Target Field this weekend, has been phenomenal since being called up two months into the season. Correa is hitting for power and average while playing highlight-reel defense. He also has 100 more at-bats than Sano. As long as Correa doesn’t fall apart, he has to be considered the odds-on favorite to win the award with the Astros.
The second, somewhat related to the first: In contrast to Correa and other candidates, Sano has done most of his work as a one-dimensional designated hitter force. If there’s an offensive tie between Sano and another candidate, this could be the tiebreaker.
The third: Sano has played 45 games, and the Twins have only 37 remaining. So he can play a maximum of 82 games this season, and considering he has 189 plate appearances now we can expect him to finish around 340 plate appearances. In the history of the Rookie of the Year Award, which dates back to Jackie Robinson in 1947, only one offensive winner has claimed the honor while playing in 82 games or fewer (Willie McCovey, with a scant 52 red-hot games in 1959. Only three other offensive players have won the award while playing in fewer than 100 games.
Perhaps the bright side within that is that two of those players — Wil Myers in 2013 and Ryan Howard in 2005 — came within the past decade, and both played in 88 games while finishing with only a slightly higher number of plate appearances than Sano projects to get.
Howard’s monster rookie batting average/on-base/slugging slash line of .288/.356/.567 was enough to overcome his lack of at-bats; Sano’s surge lately gives him an even more robust .287/.397/.592 slash line. So it is possible. But it is rare.
Long story short: the award is Correa’s to lose thanks to his marvelous two-way play and head start on Sano while playing for an even better surprise winning team. But a big final push from Sano would at least make things interesting in spite of his late start, particularly if his bat carried the Twins into the postseason.
What’s interesting is that two of Sano’s teammates — Eddie Rosario and Trevor May, who is technically (barely) still a rookie — should also get some votes. That’s a good sign for the Twins.