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Linebacker Kendricks has been tackling machine for Vikings

Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) tackles Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) during a game earlier this season in Philadelphia. James Lang / USA TODAY Sports

More than a dozen years ago, Eric Kendricks learned what tackling was all about by bringing down Mookie.

Kendricks was a seventh-grade defensive back for Wowana Middle School in Fresno, Calif., in 2004 when his team faced Cooper Middle School and its big running back.

“I remember my first stop on a big running back,” the 26-year-old Vikings middle linebacker said. “His name was Mookie. I don’t remember his whole name. I got completely run over. I got folded up, but I made the stop. Everyone on my team was kind of like, ‘Good job.’

“He got about six or seven yards, but I realized then that it wasn’t always going to be pretty but it’s about stopping the ball carrier.”

Kendricks has been doing a lot of that ever since. The 6-foot-, 230-pounder leads the Vikings with 59 tackles, 14 more than safety Harrison Smith.

If Kendricks maintains his lead, he would become the second player in Vikings history to lead the team in tackles in each of his first four seasons; linebacker Ross “Rip” Hawkins did it from 1961-64. And Kendricks would become just the fourth player overall to lead Minnesota in that category for four or more consecutive seasons. Linebacker Scott Studwell led from 1980-85 and linebacker Chad Greenway from 2008-13.

“That’s what I bring to the table,” said Kendricks, whose Vikings (4-3-1) face Detroit (3-4) at noon Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

So what makes Kendricks such a good tackler?

“I can find the ball really well and when I get to the point of attack, I go make the sound tackle,” he said. “I don’t necessarily go for the big hits. I always try to just wrap up and get the guy down.”

To illustrate Kendricks’ knack to get to the ball, Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly pointed to a play in the third quarter of last week’s 30-20 loss to New Orleans. The versatile Taysom Hill lined up at receiver on the left side and took the ball on a reverse from Drew Brees.

As Hill went to the right, Weatherly chased him toward the sideline. Then Kendricks swooped in from far away to make the tackle and limit the play to a 2-yard gain.

“I did slow (Hill) down, but he ended up bouncing out to the side. But when Eric came in, he shot it,” Weatherly said. “When he sees the ball, he has tremendous confidence in going and pursuing the guy. He’s decisive.”

Kendricks didn’t waste any time in becoming a top NFL tackler. After being taken in the second round of the 2015 draft out of UCLA, he missed two games entirely, didn’t make his first start until Week 4 and still finished the season with a team-high 105 tackles.

That was just the second time a rookie led the Vikings in tackling. Hawkins was the first to do it, in 1961, Minnesota’s first season as a franchise. Hawkins, who died in 2015, played with the Vikings from 1961-65. He had a lot more leeway back then to bring down ball carriers than Kendricks has now.

“Rip used to do that arm tackle, which you can’t do anymore,” said hall of fame defensive end Carl Eller, Hawkins’ teammate in 1964 and 1965. “He liked to rip guys around the neck. Maybe that’s where he got his name from. He’d do the old clothesline deal. That was his best.”

Kendricks followed his rookie season with 126 tackles in 2016, then had a career-high 136 in 2017.

“Eric is super talented,” said Greenway, Kendricks’ teammate during his first two seasons. “He overcomes some deficiencies in maybe not having the prototypical linebacker size with just some crazy good instincts and with his speed. … And while he’s very talented, his want-to is so much better than everybody else’s.”

When Greenway played with Kendricks, he quickly was impressed with his work ethic.

“The thing that kind of separates him from a lot of NFL players is he’s not too cool to work hard,” Greenway said. “He’ll go out and grind. When he gets to practice, he’s just super excited to go to work. He’s not out there going through the motions. He really wants to improve.”

Kendricks’ work paid off when he signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension in April that keeps him with the Vikings through 2023. He is making a base salary of $1.138 million this season in the final year of his rookie deal.

He has had 13 tackles in a game five times, his career high. Against the Saints, he had 10 tackles, including two for loss.

“Eric really pays attention to the details,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “He understands angles, staying inside out on the tackling. He’s got the speed to get to the perimeter, and still maintain leverage on backs and receivers when we pass off in coverage.”

Kendricks is adept at shedding blockers. He learned some of that from his older brother Mychal, who has seven years of NFL experience.

Mychal Kendricks, 28, played for Philadelphia from 2012-17, and is now with Seattle. He is serving an eight-game NFL suspension after being convicted of insider training, and will be eligible to play again when the Seahawks play host to the Vikings on Dec. 10.

“One of the first things my brother taught me is you don’t always have to touch everyone to get to the ball carrier,” Kendricks said. “You don’t have to always be physical. I can use my ability to get around blocks and to shed them. He said when I do make contact with the linemen, to get them by the V of the neck and get a hand up high and just separate yourself.”

Kendricks put those lessons to use when he played alongside his brother for the first time in high school. In a 2007 game for Fresno’s Herbert Hoover High School, Kendricks started as a sophomore while his brother was as senior.

“We were both on the same team and on the same defense, and I had like 10 tackles in my first varsity game,” Kendricks said. “I was actually playing defensive end.”

By then, Kendricks already had developed a reputation as a good tackler. That was something he learned about three years earlier by bringing down Mookie.