Vikings’ Audie Cole will stay as starter, Erin Henderson shifted outside

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Audie Cole’s play in the middle of the Minnesota Vikings’ defense the past two games will keep him starting at middle linebacker even as Erin Henderson returns to the lineup.

Cole, a 2012 seventh-round pick, was credited by coaches for 18 tackles two weeks ago when Henderson was out while dealing with a personal matter and then followed up with nine tackles in Sunday’s win against Chicago. He has one sack, two tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries in the two games.

“I like the way Audie’s playing,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “He’s done a good job for us in that role. At this point, I want to take a look and see if this will help our team. I think it does, with this configuration. And we’ll reevaluate it when we come back on Monday. But I think it makes our defense better.”

Cole started in the middle last week as Henderson was disciplined for an arrest in November. Cole ended up playing the entire game as coaches were pleased with his play. He just missed his first career interception, dropping a pass in his hands which he might have been able to return for a touchdown.

“That was a missed opportunity there,” Cole said.

Frazier added: “Audie’s been pretty steady in that role. He also has gotten his hands on some balls. That play he had on that first third down could easily have been a pick six. I wish he could have caught that ball. Just his awareness, being able to see the quarterback’s eyes. To get in position to make that play is a big step. And he has made some splash plays. But he’s done enough where for where we are to watch him and to see if he continues to grow because he’s doing some good things.”

Yet, Cole has been able to prove himself playing linebacker the past two weeks in a chance he rarely received since being drafted out of North Carolina State. Much of Cole’s impact previously was on special teams.

He splashed in the preseason last year when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns and believes he’s been able to show what he can do on defense the past two games.

“I mean it’s a big difference,” Cole said. “Practice is only so much, you’re just sitting, waiting to get an opportunity. Sometimes it may never come. The opportunity came and I just got a chance to show what I can do and so far it’s going all right.”

Henderson returns to the weakside linebacker spot where he started the past two seasons. He said he’s comfortable making the move because he’s played there previously, but said it doesn’t make having to move any easier.

“It doesn’t really make it that much easier as a competitor and the person I am,” Henderson said. “I still want to play that ‘Mike’ position. I think I was doing a pretty good job at it. I think I was coming into my own, the defense and all the guys were starting to rally around. Unfortunately incidents happen and the next guy up. I got to go out there and do my part to help the team.”

Frazier said Wednesday that Henderson’s move to the middle was more of necessity because the team didn’t have an heir apparent for Jasper Brinkley, who started at the position last year and went to Arizona as a free agent in the offseason.

“He was moved to the ‘Mike’ linebacker position, not necessarily because that’s what we wanted to do, but that was the plight that we were in,” Frazier said. “He didn’t come in a year ago as our middle linebacker. There were some things that happened over the offseason that resulted in him being our middle linebacker. He’s a very good outside backer and (we) expect him to play well on Sunday.”

Henderson is considered the backup to Cole in the middle as well, according to Frazier. If Cole was out for any reason, Henderson would return to the middle and Marvin Mitchell would likely take snaps at the weakside linebacker.

Henderson said he would come off in the nickel defense and Cole would stay on.

“The first thing I told Audie when it all happened, I sent him a text message, I said take advantage of the opportunity,” Henderson said. “I’m behind you. I’m rooting for you. I’m pulling for you. I want to see you do well. Audie’s a good kid. I’ve enjoyed him since the first day he came in here. I’m still pulling for him. Anything I can do to help him I’m here for him and I think he understands that, and I look forward to seeing what he does for the rest of it.”

Henderson was in good spirits Sunday and said he’s in a better mindset now after dealing with personal issues and the arrest last month.

“I’ve taken a lot of strides,” Henderson said. “When you do that self-reflection and look at yourself in the mirror and see the person looking back at you, right now I’m comfortable with that guy. I like the person that I see. My teammates enjoy me. With everything that’s been happening I don’t feel like I’ve lost their respect or their love around here. That’s been huge for me to continue to have their support. My mental state’s where it’s supposed to be, probably a lot better than it has been in a long time.”

Henderson said he wakes up in the morning and tells himself to be happy, and hinted some of the issues were taking criticism from the public, including on Twitter, to heart.

“It can be tough because I go out there every Sunday and I play my guts out, leave it on the line for my teammates and myself as well,” Henderson said. “So when you get some negative feedback it can be kind of a tough pill to swallow. But then you learn some of those people are idiots, sitting behind computers and phones saying whatever they want to say and you can’t give it too much credit. Take it with a grain of salt and continue to move forward.”

As he returns to the lineup — and his hometown with the Vikings’ playing at Baltimore this week — Henderson is just happy getting back on the field.

“Another opportunity man, another chance to go out there and play football, play the game that I love,” Henderson said. “And go out there and do it to the best of my ability and take advantage of it.”

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