Updated: July 27th, 2014 1:59pm
'Impressive' Audie Cole could be the main player in Anthony Barr's way

'Impressive' Audie Cole could be the main player in Anthony Barr's way

by Andrew Krammer
1500ESPN.com
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MANKATO, Minn. - After fielding a reporter's question, Audie Cole paused and rubbed his brow near the same spot that required six stitches after his first career start in Green Bay last season.

Cole may not end up as the bruiser in the middle of the Vikings defense again, just as he filled in for five games in 2013. But he's continuing to feel out a different role in a new defense, which so far has placed him in front of Anthony Barr on the strong side.

Although those first-team reps haven't convinced Cole he's the front runner. 

 "I don't have a job," Cole said. "Everyone's got to earn their spot. I feel the same way I did my first year, feel I still have to prove myself...Obviously I know I'm playing with Barr."

Cole saw the snaps as the strong-side linebacker alongside Jasper Brinkley as the mike (middle) and Chad Greenway at will (weak) while Barr finished his degree at UCLA. That head start, combined with four extra years of experience on defense than Barr, has placed Cole as the man that will likely be the main challenge for the Vikings' first-overall pick in May's NFL Draft.

Pads will be added to the equation when the Vikings start the third practice of training camp at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Though first-year head coach Mike Zimmer has high expectations for Barr, he knows the rookie will have a learning curve as he has practiced just eight times with the team this offseason.

"Like all rookies," Zimmer said. "There will be a learning curve, and then they'll hit a plateau and it's kind of like losing weight: you hit that plateau and then you've got to work a little bit harder and then you keep going.

"So [Barr] may or may not have the success early that he's going to have, but I think his ceiling is extremely high."

This early in camp, Zimmer didn't want to limit himself to just Barr and Cole as the options on the strong side -- adding there's possibilities for a free agent pickup or trade. However, Adam Zimmer, Mike's son and the Vikings' linebackers coach, has liked what he's seen out of Cole so far.

"He's been impressive in the classroom," Adam Zimmer said. "Smart, picks it up quick. Good size to him; he runs better than you think he does. I think he'll be a good asset to this team. We'll see where he fits best."

The linebacker positions each represent different roles than in the previous Tampa-2 scheme. But for Cole, the shift to the outside changes his responsibilities in pass coverage.

"This year compared to last year, it's a lot different," Cole said. "Playing more outside, tight ends - receivers. Playing different techniques, really."

For Barr, his lack of experience on defense could be a concern, Adam Zimmer said, but his physical ability was enough to overlook that in the draft. Barr proved he can successfully play linebacker when he soared to a top-10 pick during his final collegiate season.

But the jump to the NFL is a yearly struggle for rookies, even those with more experience at their position than Barr. The Vikings primarily fell for his pass rushing skills, which has become a crucial element to NFL defenses. However, the strong-side linebacker duties will require discipline in pass coverage -- which both Barr and Cole have plenty to prove in. 

He's got the terminology down, says Adam Zimmer, who visited Barr twice in California in June, while also keeping the rookie updated with phone calls and iPad sessions to go over practice film from the Organized Team Activities.

The question remains: is it possible for him to be a Week 1 starter after two seasons of defense at UCLA and one NFL training camp?

"I think that's yet to be determined," Adam Zimmer said. "I haven't seen enough of him yet."

Cole has taken a few reps in the middle as well, along with Greenway, Brinkley and Michael Mauti. However, the 6-foot-5 duo of Barr and Cole have been the main attractions on the strong side so far.

"I like them tall," Adam Zimmer said. "They get in throwing lanes better."

Andrew Krammer covers the Minnesota Vikings for 1500ESPN.com. He previously covered the Gophers men's basketball team for the Minnesota Daily.
Email Andrew | @andrew_krammer
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