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Ray Vinopal back to where he started on South Side of Pittsburgh

Bad luck with first NFL team might bring good fortune and perhaps a good safety to the Steelers

The story of an undrafted player trying to make his way to the NFL is always intriguing to football fans, but rarely do they understand the weight each athlete carries every time he steps on the field.

Performing at a consistently high level is obviously crucial, but staying healthy and available is just as important. The trepidation that each player must bury, knowing that at any second even a simple ankle sprain could spell the end of his NFL dream cannot be overstated. For safety Ray Vinopal, that ominous moment occurred last August, when the rookie suffered an ankle injury during the third quarter of the Dallas Cowboys’ preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers.

“It’s tough mentally when you’re knocking on the doorstep, but I found comfort from the fact that it’s not something I had any control over,” Vinopal told vindy.com at the time. “I was doing the things I needed to do and doing them well. Injuries are part of the game, but for an undrafted free agent, it wasn’t necessarily good timing.”

A second chance has come for Vinopal, however, after the safety reached an injury settlement with the Cowboys and was subsequently waived. The Pitt product reached a deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers on a futures contract in late January and has quickly grown fond of his old, and yet very new, environment.

“Every place has its own different way of doing things,” he said. “I like it here. I think the coaches put a lot of confidence in the players and it’s reciprocated by the players back to the coaches. A lot of our coaches have been great players in the NFL, so it’s cool being taught by a former player. They understand the positions you’re put in on the field and stuff like that.”

One of those former players is Vinopal’s position coach Carnell Lake. The safety beamed when answering questions about Lake, showing signs of the affinity often expressed for the DBs coach by his players.

“Coach Lake is super cool, super relaxed. He knows a player’s mindset, he understands that we want to get corrections done and that mistakes happen. But instead of jumping on guys and taking away their confidence when there is a mistake, he just gets it corrected and he doesn’t revisit it or remind you of what you did wrong. Just get it corrected and move forward.”

Vinopal made a name for himself at Pitt as a cerebral safety who never hesitated to stick his nose into a pile. He thrived on his knowledge of the game and positional smarts on the back end. The story has remained the same for Vinopal in the NFL as the defender commits himself diligently to film study in an effort to gain a mental edge on his competition.

“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “When you find you’re weak in one area, you not only have to work at that but also overcompensate with something that you’re really good at. I’m able to retain information really well. Being in the right spot is everything. I always tell people, 'I’m a safety, I play 12 yards deep. If I get beat deep for a touchdown, it’s not because I’m slow, it’s because I’m stupid.' So being in the right position is the most important thing. Film and doing things like that are the only way to get your head right and be in the right spot consistently.”

At 5-10, 197 pounds, Vinopal has never been the biggest or the fastest at his position but the Ohio native opened scouts’ eyes with an impressive pro day performance last year, running a 4.6 40 with a 35-inch vertical and a broad jump of just over 10 feet. Vinopal’s most impressive performance came on the bench press, where the safety lifted 225 pounds 26 times. That would have been the top mark among defensive backs in all of the NFL combines going back to Shamarko Thomas' 28 reps in 2013. Weight training has always been an important part of Vinopal’s off-field preparation as a player but he’s being challenged in new ways by Steelers strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont this offseason.

“Coach Gie is awesome,” he said. “We’re not hopping under a squat bar or a bench bar and just pressing every day. A lot of the stuff we do is functional, a lot of different complex movements that really translate to the field. I’ve stayed here since I signed and have been working out here. Coach Gie’s program has really got me ready and I’m doing a lot of different stuff that I’ve never done before. At first it was a bit of a transition but this is the stuff that keeps you healthy, and that’s ultimately the most important thing.”

The change for Vinopal hasn’t just come off the field, but on it as well, as the safety adjusts to a defense with a different scheme and responsibilities than the one he played at Pitt or Dallas.

“This is a 3-4 here, and we played four down (4-3) at Pitt,” he said. “So there are a lot of different things as far as front men being included in coverage and stuff like that. It's a little bit more important to know the whole defense, where guys are going and where your help is, because in the NFL you have to use your help in coverage. That’s how you play team defense. So getting the whole picture down rather than just knowing your responsibilities is a bit more vital here.”

Vinopal feels confident under the guidance of defensive coordinator Keith Butler, however, as the coach’s old-school mentality and preferred style of play have resonated with the throwback skill set of the Steelers’ young defensive back.

“Coach Butts is awesome,” he said. “We are mostly in position group meetings, but we meet as a defense very quickly each morning and he just rehashes the mentality of the defense and how he wants us to play before turning us over to our position coaches to get the specifics. I’m all about what he’s preaching, though. He wants guys running fast and he wants our game to be violent and full speed at all times. Can’t argue with that.”

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