EAGAN, Minn. — Hercules Mata’afa’s wait finally ended Friday, Aug. 9, when he played in a game for the first time in 20 months.
The Vikings defensive tackle had a sack and one other tackle for loss in a 35-24 victory at New Orleans in the preseason opener. Mata’afa missed all of his rookie season in 2018 with a torn ACL, and hadn’t played in a game since December 2017, for Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
“It was good to be back out there,” he said. “I had a bunch of fun. There’s nothing like coming back and playing the game I love.”
Mata’afa was an undrafted rookie playing defensive end when he was injured during organized team activities in June 2018. The 6-foot-2 Mata’afa returned for spring drills this year carrying 25 extra pounds, increasing his weight from 252 pounds to 275, to play a new position, three-technique defensive tackle.
Reviews from head coach Mike Zimmer on Mata’afa were good during the spring, and they have remained that way. Mata’afa was on the field for 35 plays against the Saints, making three tackles with two quarterback hits.
“I think he did all right,” Zimmer said. “He pushed the pocket a couple of times good, and in the running game he was all right. He is still going to continue to grow as we move forward, but he showed signs that he has a chance to be a good player.”
The highlight for Mata’afa was overpowering Saints center Will Clapp in the second quarter to sack of former Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“I was excited to get a sack,” he said. “After being out last year, it’s good to be back in my natural feel of things.”
The lowlight for Mata’afa was later in the quarter being called for roughing the passer when he hit Bridgewater low.
“We watched it in the team room and (the coaches) were saying I was getting pushed in the back, but it’s my responsibility to tackle him in the right way,” Mata’afa said.
With starting three-technique Shamar Stephen and backup Jalyn Holmes missing time in training camp because of injuries, Mata’afa has gotten plenty of reps. He has had several practices working with the first team.
Stephen and Holmes are both healthy now. But Mata’afa should see plenty of action in the team’s final three preseason games.
“Hercules is a good player,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “He’s really strong, and I think he’s out there to prove something. So I’m going to keep watching him in these preseason games and see how he does.”
Competition to make the 53-man roster will be stiff, but Mata’afa has a solid chance.
“I think I’m on the right track,” Mata’afa said. “I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing and keep on improving every day, and we’ll go on from there and see how it works.”
If Mata’afa does make the team, he would stand out by wearing No. 51. Only in recent years has the NFL allowed defensive linemen to wear numbers in the 50s. Detroit end Eric Lee, who wears No. 55, is the only other player on an NFC North roster with a number in the 50s.
“I wouldn’t want to be a 60s number,” Mata’afa said. “I wouldn’t want to be a 70s number, and all the 90s (on the Vikings) are kind of taken, so 51 is kind of a cool little number.”