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Eric Kendricks Feeling Right at Home


EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Eric Kendricks' first NFL regular-season game was played in the closest possible place to his hometown of Fresno, California.

The Vikings opened the 2015 season at Levi's Stadium, which sits in Santa Clara, just more than 150 miles from Kendricks' childhood home.

Minnesota lost 20-3 to the San Francisco 49ers as Kendricks, who was a second-round pick earlier that year, had a tackle on eight defensive plays.

Kendricks also played 14 of Minnesota's 22 special teams snaps, many of which were a blur to the rookie linebacker.

"We got our butts beat pretty good, but it also taught me that it doesn't define your season," Kendricks said. "That was a tough game. I played a lot of special teams that game and learned a lot.

"The game speed, especially on special teams, I was struggling," Kendricks recalled. "It's not like I was making huge mistakes, but I was getting beat. It was incredibly difficult. There were guys that were bigger and faster than me."

With the game so close to home, Kendricks had multiple family members and friends that were able to drive up and see his professional dream come true.

Kendricks said he won't have any family in town for Sunday night's preseason game against the 49ers, but that doesn't mean there won't be some Fresno faithful cheering on the linebacker from afar.

Larry Martinez is the unofficial president of Central California Minnesota Vikings Fan Club, a group that is based in Fresno.

The club was spawned in the mid-1980s with only a handful of people, but Martinez said the group now tops out at roughly 150 people who have a passion for the Purple.

It's not a sanctioned club or anything, and Martinez doesn't collect dues, but a few dozen regularly gather to watch games at a local steakhouse while others stop in from time to time.

Martinez said the club keeps tabs on a handful of Fresno natives in the NFL, but there's a special connection with Kendricks, whose jersey is quickly becoming one of the most popular within the group.

"It's very cool to see somebody local go on to become a player on your favorite team," Martinez said.

Kendricks is no stranger to the club, either.

"There's a Vikings club," a smiling Kendricks said of the support from back home. "I had a camp with my brother a couple weeks back, and they showed up with their banners.

"I went over there and talked to them, signed some autographs, and it was a cool group of people," Kendricks added. "It's people in Fresno who support the Vikings. Every Sunday they get together and watch the game. It's a cool deal."

The club has watched Kendricks evolve over the years. Even though he primarily played special teams in his debut, Kendricks cracked the starting lineup in Week 4 at Denver and recorded his first career sack, dropping Peyton Manning. Kendricks led the Vikings in tackles with 105 (according to coaches' tally) that season, becoming the first rookie to do so since Rip Hawkins in Minnesota's inaugural 1961 season.

It was more of the same in 2016 as Kendricks once again led Minnesota in tackles from his middle linebacker spot, this time racking up 126 tackles (according to coaches' tally) with 11 passes defensed and an interception that he returned 77 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. It was the longest interception returned for a touchdown by a linebacker in Week 1 in NFL history.

Kendricks is surrounded by Pro Bowlers on Minnesota's defense, whether it's Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph on the line, Anthony Barr right next to him, or Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes in the Vikings secondary.

Yet for all of his success early in his career, Kendricks deflected talk that he should have earned a Pro Bowl nod himself in 2016.

"I'm not going to get into that," Kendricks said. "I have my own personal goals, but I just have to do better. I'm not going to say (the Pro Bowl) is not on my list, but I have a personal list of goals and I try to achieve them.

"I feel like my entire career of playing football I've kind of been looked at as the underdog," Kendricks added. "That's not a bad thing per se, but it's just who I am as a player. I embrace it and take it as a challenge."

Kendricks said in training camp that his latest task is mastering the other side of the ball.

No, Kendricks is not switching positions, although he was a standout running back at Fresno's Hoover High.

Instead, Kendricks is simply more aware with how the opposition is trying to attack him.

"I obviously want to improve on my game, and I did a lot last year from my rookie year," Kendricks said. "Now I just want to understand more of the offense and what they're doing.

"I have a better understanding of the defense, but I just want to fly to the rock and make plays," Kendricks added. "I don't want to say I have (the defense) down, but I've got a good feeling for our side of the ball. Right now I just want to be able to make those big plays for my team."

Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer has seen Kendricks' approach up close.

"He's just having a better understanding of route concepts and the types of runs he's getting," Zimmer said. "The better understanding he has of that, the better he can play it on defense, and he's really good at playing our defense."

Kendricks and the Vikings each got off to a rocky start to open the 2015 season. But both persisted. Kendricks recorded sacks in three consecutive games (at Denver, against Kansas City, at Detroit) after becoming a starter, and the team captured the NFC North title.

Now as the 2017 season looms, the timing may be right for the linebacker and his team to continue building on an already solid foundation.

"I've calmed down a little bit as far as knowledge of the game and seeing things," Kendricks said. "I remember being in that game (in San Francisco), and my mind was kind of spinning.

"Now it's slowed down a lot of for me," Kendricks added.

Kendricks' comfort in the Vikings system is showing, and so is the passion and support from halfway across the country.

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