Only moments after naming Jasper Brinkley and Robert Blanton as starters at middle linebacker and strong safety last week, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer made a point to explain that the responsibility to contribute on defense isn't exclusive to just those in the starting lineup.
"Just because these guys aren't starting, doesn't mean they won't be playing some packages that we have in the game," Zimmer said. "We just have to put 11 out there to start with."
Zimmer's point was affirmed almost immediately in Sunday's season-opening win over the St. Louis Rams. On the Vikings first 3rd-down snap, Gerald Hodges, a non-starter, was on the field and made a tackle to end the Rams drive. If the first 3rd-down snap in the first game of the season is any indication, and it's fair to assume it is, then Hodges and several other non-starters are poised to contribute in Zimmer's schemes this season.
On Hodges specifically, it's easy to see the talent. Seemingly every game the second-year linebacker flashes the talent that appealed to the Vikings in the buildup to the 2013 NFL Draft. Aside from making that tackle on the first 3rd-down snap, Hodges was also in on two special teams tackles and three other defensive tackles, with all but one of those six tackles being solo stops.
Expect this to be more trend than mirage. Hodges feels like the perfect young role player in a Zimmer defense, and Zimmer said as much in his press conference on Monday.
"It actually is a huge role," Zimmer said when quizzed about how he arrived at giving Hodges a role in the defense's sub packages. "Our nickel players tend to get upwards of 600 plays a year."
Hodges was on the field for 14 defensive snaps on Sunday, which represents 21% of the defenses total snaps for the game (67). He was also in on 21 special teams snaps, which represents 68% of the Vikings total for the game.
What is it about Hodges that stands out to Zimmer?
"There are a lot of really good things about Gerald. Gerald is a very good athlete, he's got some physicality, he's got some pass rush, which I always look at, at that position, to see if they can blitz," Zimmer explained. "He seems to be keeping his nose to the grindstone.
"We have to keep our thumb on him just to make sure that he's always being precise in everything, I think because he has so much natural ability, sometimes he'll rely on his athletic ability instead, kind of like I was talking about Anthony (Barr) a minute ago, we can make it a lot easier than if we do it. I think he's got good coverage ability, I think he understands the zone defenses well, I think he has good blitzability."
Zimmer, a 36-year coaching veteran, can be a tough critic, of course. And he will be the first to acknowledge that Hodges, like the rest of the Vikings roster, has plenty to work on and improve after just one regular season game. But after the first game of his second season, it appears as if Hodges is taking well to the new coaching staff's direction.