EAGAN, Minn. – George Iloka arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday morning, rushed to the Vikings’ new facility and was practicing as the team took the field at the Twin Cities Orthopedic Performance Center by 11 a.m.
Iloka, the former Cincinnati Bengals’ safety who has experience with Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer, could hardly blink as he signed a contract and then donned a white No. 28 jersey for practice.
Make no mistake, Iloka wasn’t offering any type of statement or assumption by wearing No. 28, last worn by a Vikings player when Adrian Peterson was finishing a standout 10 seasons in Minnesota.
It was the only number available in the typical range for a defensive back with the Vikings having a 90-man roster ahead of the league’ cutdown day later this month.
Iloka’s number was more of a by-product of his whirlwind arrival in Minnesota’s defense.
“Ten hours ago,” Iloka said of when he thought signing with the Vikings. “I woke up at 5, got to the airport at 5:30. Had a flight at 7, got off the plane and started practicing. That’s the business. Speaking with Zim made me comfortable.
“Obviously with how late into camp it is, 10 days left, two weeks left, whatever it is, doesn’t give you much time to pick up other systems and playbooks and things like that.”
Iloka was surprised when he was released by the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday with three years left on his contract. He was taking his time and weighing his options, and wasn’t expecting a call from his former coach.
Finally, Minnesota reached out on Tuesday. Iloka made contact in the evening and was on a plane the next morning.
“I had teams talking to me earlier in the process,” Iloka said. “The Vikings just came out of nowhere, pretty much late last evening. Talked to Zim and the ball just got rolling real fast. I wouldn’t even say they were an option two days ago just because there was no communication.
"But obviously my priority was just to go into a good situation, go into a winning team and a place that had a plan for me, or a place that I felt like I could help the team out in any kind of way. So that’s what made this decision pretty easy.”
Iloka signed a one-year contract with Minnesota. Reports say he signed for the veteran minimum of $790,000 with a $90,000 signing bonus. Arriving late in training camp might be a problem for other players switching teams; not so for Iloka.
Zimmer was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator when the Bengals drafted Iloka in the fifth round in 2012. A year later, Iloka started all 16 games for Zimmer’s defense.
“George is a very smart guy,” Zimmer said, later adding: “He's a good tackler. He's going to be where he supposed to be all the time. He pretty much knows a lot of the things that we're doing. Most of the calls we went through today he knew probably 85 percent of them.”
Wearing No. 28 and taking reps with the second-string defense, Iloka was already catching on to what Zimmer is doing with the Vikings. Iloka said his recall of Zimmer’s plays was about 80 percent. The coach added five percent.
“He’s changed some things up, some calls, some names and a little bit of philosophy here and there,” Iloka said of the differences. “It will be easy. Now it’s my job to do the due diligence, study the playbook, get with the coaches and learn it. It’s late into training camp; they’ve got a season to worry about. I don’t want to be a distraction. I just want to learn it as fast as I can and when called upon do what I have to do.”
Zimmer did share a story of a time Iloka wasn’t as smart. As a young player, Iloka broke his hand punching an opponent’s helmet while playing on special teams.
“I still use that story,” Zimmer said. “I told him last night when I talked to him, I said, 'I still use you as an example.'”
Iloka recalled: “Yeah, that was out of character for me, but I was young. It’s funny now, it wasn’t funny then. But, hey, I’m just glad I could be that example to say, ‘Don’t punch a helmet. You could break your hand.’ That was me about six years ago. It’s funny.”
Zimmer and Iloka wouldn’t share their expectations of workload for the upcoming season. Minnesota returns its two starting safeties from last season in All-Pro Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo.
“Most of these guys, we can use in different ways,” Zimmer said. “Even on the goal line. We can use bigger guys down there. Honestly we're just trying to add good football players and it'll all sort out at the end.
Iloka also feels his jersey number will be sorted out in the end.
“Honestly, the roster is full right now and they just rushed me from the plane to practice, like I said,” Iloka said. “I just think that was the only number available so they just threw me in it. Obviously what A.P. did for the Minnesota Vikings no one can match. Future Hall of Famer. He was an elite running back and I don’t think it’s bigger than what you’ll maybe try to make it other than that was the only number to maybe me out there.
“After everything is said and done, it’s most likely I’ll switch.”