With the potential openings the Vikings may have in the new-look secondary, opportunity abounds.
That's the motto being adopted by Vikings rookie Antone Exum. A defensive back who is listed as a safety, he has the speed, size and experience playing safety, cornerback and a hybrid Rover position utilized at Virginia Tech.
Exum felt the excitement of being drafted to the NFL last week. That initial thrill has worn off and the shifting focus on getting to work has set in.
"I'm excited for this opportunity with the Vikings," Exum said. "You never know where you're going to end up. You just hope that it's in a place where the coaches are eager to give young guys a chance to prove themselves and have a defense that fits in with what you do. I'm just excited to be here and ready to make Minnesota my new home."
Exum enters a secondary that has starters atop the depth chart, but only two of them – safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes – have their names written in pen. Making an early impression will be critical for players like Exum, who is taking to his new environment like a sponge.
"It feels great being here – on the practice field, in the meeting rooms, in the weight room," Exum said. "You look forward to getting the chance to play in the NFL for so long. It's great when you get picked, but it's different coming here. This is where you have to prove it. I love everything about it. It's a true blessing to be here."
Exum is slated to be a safety in the Vikings defense, but the morphing role of the game – the continued growth in passing and the emphasis of having speed in the secondary to handle three- and four-receiver sets – has made some coaches and coordinators change how they approach certain teams at certain times. Mike Zimmer is no exception.
Zimmer likes Exum's speed and versatility because there are times when there is an increasing need to play three cornerbacks at a time – if not five or even six defensive backs. He sees Exum as the type of defensive back that will be in demand in the future because he has safety strength and cornerback speed.
"The safety position in college football really is hard to find guys now, at least in my opinion – guys that have the coverage ability that you are looking for," Zimmer said. "There are times in my career that I always thought, ‘Let's play with three corners and one safety and make the other guy a safety because of the throwing that's been going on in the league.' The bigger corners that may not be quite as fast that are better tacklers, that are more physical, smart – they have to be smart – we always have a little category for those guys to be a possibility of being safeties."
As a sixth-round pick, even if Exum fits the prototype measurable traits of the new-look defensive back in the NFL, he has no guarantee of making the final roster. He's as aware of the life expectancy of late-round draftees as anyone. Nothing is certain and, as a result, he hasn't been able to do much other than work out, rest and study.
For a lot of players, learning the sometimes confusing Twin Cities road systems is an acquired taste – often punctuated by buying a GPS system if they don't already own one. That hasn't been a problem for Exum. Between Winter Park and his apartment, he isn't getting to see much of what the Twin Cities has to offer.
"That hasn't been an issue for me," Exum said. "I've been spending almost all of my time either here (Winter Park) or studying the playbook on my own. I haven't had much of a chance to go anywhere or see much of anything because my focus is here. It's 24/7 football for me right now. I'm just trying to work to the best of my ability and learn the system."
Exum is putting his best foot forward in trying to make an impression on the coaching staff and the others eyes that are watching the film of this weekend's rookie minicamp. By drafting him, the Vikings expressed an interest in him. Now it's up to Exum to make a smooth transition and show the coaches what it was about him they liked when watching him in college.
"It's all football at the end of the day when you break it down into the X's and O's," Exum said. "Everybody has their own terminology. That will be the biggest difference – learning the unique little nuances of how the Vikings play defense. I'm starting to figure those out and I'm ready to keep working hard until I get it down and the game gets back to being X's and O's."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Exum excited to prove his skills belong
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