Mauti healthy, hopeful over second season

MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Michael Mauti's offseason is just how unremarkable it's been.

The Minnesota Vikings linebacker is back in the Twin Cities now, getting settled in an apartment before the Vikings' offseason workout program starts Monday and returning from his hometown of Mandeville, La. He's spent the last four months relaxing at home, working out in the same place he's trained since high school and spending his weekends fishing for bass in the swamps around Lake Ponchartrain. In fact, the most upsetting thing about his winter might have been the unusually chilly temperatures that scared off the fish.

"I was fishing," he said. "I wouldn't say I was catching anything."

Mauti also wasn't meeting with a rehab specialist, or seeing a doctor, or following a training program to put strength and range of motion back into one of his knees. He's a year removed from his third torn ACL, and for the first time since the spring of 2011 he's preparing for a new season without worrying about a knee injury.

"Based on the way [the winter] went, and how my body feels right now, it's tenfold better than where I was at this point last year," the second-year linebacker said. "It's nice to build a foundation where I can work in the positive instead of starting from negative and working back to zero, you know?"

Now that he's healthy, Mauti has his sights on a starting linebacker spot that might have been his if he hadn't banged his surgically repaired left knee on the CenturyLink Field turf last November. He had played a handful of snaps in the Vikings' base defense during a blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks, finishing the game after getting injured in the first half and seeing time at middle linebacker while Audie Cole played on the strong side. At that point, Mauti was second on the depth chart at middle linebacker. But when starter Erin Henderson missed the Vikings' next game against the Green Bay Packers after an arrest and a subsequent personal issue, the Vikings opted to start Cole in the middle, limiting Mauti to special teams duty while remaining cautious with his knee.

"I remember being a little disappointed, I had no control over what was going to happen, one of those things, bad timing, at the same time, I was lucky enough that it wasn't serious," Mauti said. "Audie played great while he was in there. It was tough timing."

Cole played well enough at middle linebacker at the end of last season that he might have an edge on Mauti for the starting job there this season, and Jasper Brinkley also could contend for the spot. But the arrival of a new coaching staff essentially gives all the Vikings' players a clean slate. Both Mauti and Cole are helped by the fact they can play multiple positions; Mauti had started his career at Penn State as an outside linebacker before moving inside, and Cole has played both spots, as well. General manager Rick Spielman said last month that Zimmer plans to do "different things" with strong side linebacker Chad Greenway, so versatility could be a key attribute for all of the Vikings' linebackers.

But Mauti, who might have been a second- or third-round pick instead of a seventh-rounder if he'd been healthy, said his goal is to start.

"I have higher expectations for myself than just a [special] teams player," Mauti said. "If that's my role, I'll do that to the best of my ability. But everybody wants to play defense. I'm in a great spot, there's going to be great competition for it, and we've got a couple of great guys to work with."

Mauti will be in Minnesota for the duration of the Vikings' offseason program, making a trip back to Penn State to call the Lions' spring game for the Big Ten Network for the second year. "It's something I enjoy doing, and it might be something I want to pursue someday," he said.

He doesn't plan to have a second career path, though, for quite a long time.

"This was a big offseason for me physically, just to really kind of recover," he said. "It's been a long year, but now I'm starting normally for the first time in a couple years."