Tuesday, September 1, 2015

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(photo by Chris Price)
(photo by Chris Price)

Last season, Gerald Hodges met criticism for a lack of focus. This season is a whole new story.

There has never been any doubt as to Hodges’ athletic ability. When Minnesota drafted him in the fourth round in 2013, Hodges was coming off his junior season at Penn State. That year he started all 11 games, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and ESPN.com and second-team accolades by the media. He also was named a Pro Football Weekly honorable-mention. Hodges led the team with 106 tackles (60 solo) and ranked in the top 15 in the Big Ten in hits (eighth) and sacks (14th tie with 4.5).

At 6’2”, 243 lbs, Hodges is a machine of a linebacker. He is a safety convert, which brings its own set of advantages. However, Hodges didn’t stand out as fans hoped he would as a rookie. In an Aug. 3 interview, he explained to ESPN’s Ben Goessling part of the problem:

“Last year, I don’t think I came in as focused [as I should have been],” Hodges said. “I was coming from the combine. I wasn’t studying my plays in as much detail as I’m doing this year. I think last year I was focusing on too much instead of focusing on my job.”

Coming into the 2014 season, Hodges has made some adjustments—including working to be in better physical shape this offseason.

“I just [want] to be as healthy and in shape as I can be,” Hodges said. “I feel as if I’m ready to run around on the field more effectively, able to get to the ball.”

Hodges expressed a confidence in playing the nickel defense, and says his team mentality has improved.

“Each day I come in and work hard […] work on improving the team and improving myself as well.”

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Faciane

I-sem FA-shawn.

That’s how you pronounce his name, and if he has his way, you probably won’t need to ask to find out. It’s evidently the third in his line, because you’ll often see the signifier “III” appended to his name, though no one calls him that. Like many of the undrafted free agents, it’s not easy to find information on him, though defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who worked with him at Florida International, has no shortage of praise for him.

As a defensive line coach who has worked with the Vikings in 1998 and 1999, as well as the Patriots (1997), Cowboys (2000-2002), Browns (2003-2004) and Broncos (2005-2006) it means a lot that he called Faciane among the “top ten percent of defensive linemen” he’s ever worked with.

The 2013 FIU season did not draw plaudits, going 1-11 in a relatively weak conference. But grabbing attention doesn’t mean missing out on the opportunity to compete in the NFL, where Faciane fielded offers from several teams before choosing the Minnesota Vikings. He says he chose Minnesota in big part due to Coach Patterson, who is implementing something similar here as he did there.

“I knew his system same type of play style at FIU. I had a little step forward on everything, and I was real comfortable with Coach Patterson. I only had him for a year him and [we] became real close throughout the season. The relationship helped me come here.”

It’s a system that has seen him change his role several times over the course of the offseason. Starting off OTAs and minicamp as a nose tackle, Faciane has been tried at the under tackle three-technique role for a significant amount of time in camp. To that end, he’s been tasked with keeping a specific weight, one that seems less fit for the nose tackle role than at three-technique.

“I came in at 300 and through OTAs and minicamp and through that process I gained like 16 pounds. I had to drop that and come back at 300. You know, stay smaller and lighter so I can play that 3-tech better, quicker steps.”

“Quicker” is something that he’s been told a few times is a key word for him. Working at  Fourth and Inches Performance Group in Dallas before the draft, Faciane worked to hone his technique and add burst to his game. Draft analyst Tony Pauline identified it as a weakness of his, but he doesn’t think it’s a big deal.

“I feel like, you know, my first step in here has been quicker but you know people have their own opinion. I just keep working and do what Coach Patterson tells me to do.”

It’s been working. Pro Football Focus gave Faciane the highest grade for the preseason game against the Oakland Raiders among all the Minnesota Vikings. At +2.6, it’s 0.8 higher than the next player—a significant difference. What’s unique about that game for him, though, is not that he was able to log a batted pass and put some pressure on the quarterback (drawing a hold in the process), he did it from both the three-technique and nose tackle positions, switching with Kheeston Randall at times along the line.

 

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The Vikings have made a number of exciting additions this offseason.  The changes to the coaching staff might make the biggest overall impact, and the free agent signings might see more playing time, but I want to know which of the Vikings draft selections (and maybe even UDFA’s) might make the biggest impact as a rookie.

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Adam Thielen is, without a doubt, one of the most talked-about guys in Mankato this year. He impressed early on in training camp, and after Friday’s first preseason game, the buzz only increased.

“[Adam]’s a guy that has a lot of toughness, a lot of heart,” head coach Mike Zimmer said during Sunday’s press conference. “He wants to make the football team, and he’s giving his best effort to do it. Guys like him—you can win a lot of football games with guys like him.”

Thielen entered his second year ready to make an impression, and he certainly has. His explosiveness, agility and reception accuracy spoke for itself on the practice field, but the receiver stepped onto TCF Field and proved he is ready for the real stuff.

The Vikings mic’d Thielen for the game, so television viewers could listen in on bits and pieces of the game experience. He laughed, admitting he occasionally forgot that he was wired up. “It was a really different experience, but it was great.” *

Special teams coach Mike Priefer utilized Thielen for punt coverage and returns, and the WR hit the ground running—literally. After Oakland went three and out on its first possession, Thielen fielded Marquette King’s punt and ran for three yards before being tackled at the 30. He immediately jumped up, pumping his arms in a gesture of equal excitement and frustration.

Finishing up a road trip combined with hosting the in-laws meant I was a little delayed in my watching of the Vikings first preseason game of the Mike Zimmer era.  I’ll try to make up for the delay by hosting a real-time live chat for the next game.

Overall, what we saw from the Vikings in their preseason debut against Oakland was encouraging.  Tomorrow, I’ll turn around and focus on the “Five Things I Hate About You,” but I first want to ride the optimism and give you five positive takeaways.

5.  Adam Thielen Looks Legit

The Vikings have invested a lot into their wide out position over the last couple of years and it is showing.  Quality depth is still a concern, especially with Jerome Simpson facing a suspension this season, but Adam Thielen is looking like a reliable backup option with special teams value.  He caught a pass for 15 yards, made a hell of a coverage play, and averaged over 17 yards on three punt returns.  He looks fragile to me, and that very well could be my imagination,  but I otherwise can’t think of a single reason he shouldn’t be on this roster in Week One of the regular season.  He made plays all over the field this week.

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