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Weatherly Bringing New Attitude to Vikings Defensive Line

EAGAN, Minn. — Stephen Weatherly is one of the most cordial players on the Vikings roster.

Sure, he stands at 6-foot-5 and 265-pounds, but he is quick with a smile and plays nine musical instruments away from the field.

But as the third-year defensive end has transitioned and adapted into the NFL, perhaps his biggest learning curve had nothing to do with his technique or athleticism.

No, Weatherly has learned to get mean.

"The last two weeks, he's done a lot better," said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "He's been much more violent in his rush, he's gotten off the ball better."

Weatherly took time after Tuesday's practice to explain what Zimmer meant and how he has evolved his demeanor in recent years.

"When you're in the trenches as offensive and defensive linemen, you have to flip a switch or do something to know that you're going to have a very violent collision," Weatherly said. "It's imminent. And it's not just one time, it's every play.

"Every time the ball is snapped, I put my hands on somebody, and that person is putting their hands on me as hard as they can, and we're battling in that moment," Weatherly added. "One of the things you have to do is come with an edge and come with an intensity and know that it's going to be a long, hard-fought battle. It took me a while to understand that, but once I did, I made the proper jump in my mindset, and it's coming through in my play."

Weatherly's newfound attitude was evident at the end of the first quarter of Minnesota's preseason opener in Denver.

The defensive end dropped into coverage on a play and recognized Broncos tight end Austin Traylor coming out of the backfield and heading toward the flat on a delayed route.

Although the pass sailed high and was incomplete, Weatherly charged up and gave Traylor a bump to the ground, drawing a spirited reaction from the nearby Vikings sideline. Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Sheldon Richardson were among those who nearly came onto the field to celebrate a simple incomplete pass.

Besides working with coaches and teammates, Weatherly said he consulted other players around the league over the past few offseasons. He also began to feel more comfortable as a 4-3 defensive end after playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme in his final two seasons of college football.

"I just asked them about how they get prepared for it and their mindset and how they play," Weatherly said. "I was thinking too much when I first got here and trying to use my Vanderbilt brain.

"Back at Vandy, I was calling defenses in more like the Eric Kendricks-Anthony Barr situation," Weatherly added. "I just needed to put my hand down and go, run, rush, hit someone. It all started to click."

Weatherly, a seventh-round pick in 2016, has played 115 total defensive snaps over three preseason games. His 36 snaps against Seattle tied for the most by a Vikings player along with safety Anthony Harris.

The 24-year-old has five total tackles (according to coaches' tally) along with 0.5 sacks, a tackle for loss and a team-high five quarterback hits.

Weatherly has been noticeable in Minnesota's three preseason contests, especially in the run game. It's an area he has focused on in his offseason training.

"It's something I put extra emphasis on in the offseason and it's been coming through," Weatherly said. "I've been getting some good stops, good hand placement, striking and setting a good edge so the linebackers and secondary can come [and make the tackle]."

Weatherly and the Vikings will wrap up the preseason Thursday against the Titans in Nashville, a familiar city for Weatherly because of his college days.

He said he's excited for a homecoming and to show just how far he has come in recent years.

"I didn't have the opportunity to go my rookie year in the season opener [in 2016], so I'm excited to go there," Weatherly said. "I'll be getting a good chunk of reps, so I'll be able to play, and some guys on the team from Vandy will be there. Plus, family and friends … it'll be fun.

"[I'm] completely different [than I was in college]," Weatherly added. "Playing-wise, obviously playing a different position. But on the football field, I've gotten a lot better. I'm excited to go back to Nashville and show what I've got and make a couple plays. And more importantly, walk out with a 'W.' "

Weatherly began his rookie season in 2016 on the practice squad before being elevated to the active roster late in the season. He then played in 15 games during the 2017 season.

Now, as the roster trim down looms after Thursday's preseason finale, Weatherly said he is "optimistic" he will be back with the Vikings yet again.

He's showcased his skills on defense and has played significantly on special teams.

"One thing coaches have been saying is they want us to do everything possible to make it difficult for the front office," Weatherly said. "It's just about going out there and playing hard, playing fast and having fun.

"I'm just trying to be as useful as possible," Weatherly added.

With a little bit of nastiness mixed in.