Vikings LB Brinkley primed for breakout year

After recovering from hip surgery, linebacker Jasper Brinkley is ready to man the middle for the Vikings.

MANKATO, Minn. — The past year for Minnesota Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley has been filled with personal trials.

Brinkley entered training camp last year vying for a starting job at outside linebacker only to be sidelined with hip pain that led to eventual surgery and kept him out the entire season. Returning from hip surgery was a long, arduous process. And he didn't feel truly healthy until training camp rolled around this season.

Just a few days into training camp came the news that receiver O.J. Murdock had committed suicide. Murdock was a former teammate of Brinkley's at South Carolina, the second former teammate to have committed suicide. Another former Gamecocks receiver, Kenny McKinley, killed himself two years ago.

Brinkley was stunned by the news, visible even a few days later. He continued with his daily life, going through training camp practices and trying to prove he deserves to start at middle linebacker for Minnesota. But it brings his personal battles into perspective.

"Only perspective I have is just life, man," Brinkley said. "You never know what someone's going through. You just have to go out each day like it's your last."

Murdock and Brinkley were teammates for one season at South Carolina, but those bonds can be lasting ones. He was teammates with McKinley for four seasons. And when true, real-life struggles hit so close twice in two years, it makes Brinkley wonder.

"Another guy that was full of life," Brinkley said of Murdock. "For something like that to happen, you never know. I can't even sit here and begin to wonder what could be wrong and whatnot."

Brinkley usually goes about his business on the football field quietly. He isn't the roudy, rah-rah type of player. But the emotion is there, even if it doesn't come vocally. The 6-foot-1, 252-pound linebacker plays a physical game.

He said this season he wanted to prove his detractors wrong -- the ones who harped on his injuries, the ones who said he can't play an all-around game. His emotion could be seen in his words when he said during organized team activities that he was ready to silence the doubters that he could play middle linebacker in Minnesota's Cover-2 system with the responsibilities of covering downfield. His thumping style in the run defense wasn't much of a concern.

Asked if he was a three-down or only a two-down linebacker at the start of training camp, Brinkley responded: "Three-down. Four if need be."

He wants to leave no doubt he's ready for anything asked of him. His style is very similar to the player he is replacing, E.J. Henderson, and he learned a lot from Henderson.

"Just responsibility that comes with it," Brinkley said. "I just have to continue to be a pro, man. Go in and study. Pick up on little keys, things somebody else might not. Definitely got to go into the film room and devote more time to studying. I'm not married, so I have time."

Brinkley's natural ascension to the starting spot came after the Vikings chose not to re-sign Henderson. But the conscientious Brinkley is trying to prove he deserves the spot too. His teammates see the work Brinkley has put in and his focus.

"He's got so much ability, and his head's in the right place and he wants it," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We're hoping that everything stays healthy, and he has a great camp. I think when he gets to where he's going, people are going to be pretty impressed with what he's got."

The injury question seems to go hand-in-hand with Brinkley, even though he's only had one NFL season interrupted by injury. He had played in each of the first 32 games of his career before the hip sidelined him last year. In OTAs he was bothered by a groin injury and couldn't practice.

The injuries even had coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman concerned. But, he was ready to practice on a full-time basis when camp opened last week. On Monday, he was active in the first padded practice of training camp, his first time in pads since last August.

"He looks good," new defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "I heard one of the guys yesterday joking saying, 'Hey, you look like your rookie season,' meaning that he's moving around, he's slimmed down, a better version of Brink out there. He's making great calls. He looks like he hadn't been away from it."

But he was away from it; "taken" away from it.

"It feels great," Brinkley said of returning to practice. "When you have something taken away like this, it kind of feels like the end of the world. But with a great training staff, they was able to get me back at the right time. It all timed up at the perfect time actually."

And so Brinkley keeps working towards his goal of establishing himself as an NFL starter. It hasn't been an easy past year. But reasons to be appreciative of his place and examples on how to secure it are everywhere for Brinkley. He's just trying to handle what he can.

"It's definitely a blessing," Brinkley said of being healthy again. "Everything happens for a reason. You just got to stay optimistic about it."

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