MINNEAPOLIS —Audie Cole is a third-string middle linebacker and a second-string player on each of the Vikings’ special teams units. But he also is a longtime underdog with a knack for plugging along until he surprises people.
Like the time eight years ago when he showed up for his first Golden Gloves boxing match in Michigan.
“I was 15 and weighed 177 pounds,” Cole said. “The guy in my weight class didn’t show up. They told me I could either take the forfeit or fight this other guy.”
The “other guy” was pushing 18 years old and weighed 250 pounds.
“I was there to fight,” Cole said. “So I fought.”
Stunning upset, right?
“No,” he said. “I lost. Split decision.
“But,” Cole was quick to add, “I fought the guy again later that season. And I won. It wasn’t the Golden Gloves you see in Vegas or anything like that. I was a ‘green’ fighter. A beginner. But when you’re fighting and the whole town is watching you, that’s pretty cool.”
The Metrodome was less than half full when Cole delivered his 13-second preseason knockout of the Buffalo Bills at Mall of America Field on Friday night. The Bills trailed only 22-14 late in the fourth quarter when Cole intercepted passes and returned them for touchdowns of 20 and 30 yards on back-to-back plays from scrimmage.
“Funny thing is, I had only one interception in college,” said Cole, who went to North Carolina State. “And I think the return went for minus-1 yard.”
Cole didn’t even play linebacker at Monroe (Mich.) High School. He was the star quarterback who occasionally played safety in passing situations as a senior.
“N.C. State recruited me as a quarterback,” Cole said. “Then I went to their camp.”
How’d that one go?
“I worked out for them and they said, ‘Well, you’re not playing quarterback for us,’ ” Cole said. “But they thought I moved well enough and would fill out and had a chance to play defense. I guess it all worked out.”
Cole saw limited time at outside linebacker during his redshirt freshman season. His self-evaluation: “I wasn’t that good and I kind of thought that was it for me and football.”
But the coaches told him he was better than he thought. So Cole started at outside linebacker his sophomore and junior seasons before the Wolfpack moved him to starting middle linebacker as a senior. A year later, the Vikings used a seventh-round draft pick (210th overall) to select him.
Today, he is the defensive star of the NFL’s second week of the preseason.
“I can’t say that this does anything good or bad for me,” he said. “Well, actually, I guess it can’t be bad to score twice in a game. It does make you feel good. But, c’mon, it’s only Week 2 of the preseason.”
Yes, but this also was a Vikings team that set an NFL record a year ago when it went nine consecutive games between interceptions. From Oct. 9 against Arizona until the second half against Washington on Christmas Eve, opposing quarterbacks completed 72.1 percent of their passes (212 of 294) for 2,647 yards, 27 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Cole displayed some of his key strengths during both interceptions. His height (6-5), long arms, lanky frame and field awareness helped him surprise Bills backup quarterbacks Tyler Thigpen and Brad Smith. Thigpen tried to put the ball over Cole’s head while being pressured. Smith underestimated Cole’s speed and paid for it when he jumped the route.
“Audie’s a long strider, so what some people would say is a lack of speed, he’s really closing and moving fairly quickly,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “And his length makes a big difference. Those quarterbacks who think they can line drive the ball in, like the other night, all of a sudden that pass that could be a completion is an interception.
“(Cole) has good anticipation and is a smart football player. That can offset when a guy doesn’t have blazing speed.”
The Vikings usually keep six linebackers, at least three of whom are leaned on heavily for special teams. Cole isn’t one of them.
Then again, he does have a history of turning things around in his favor.