Exum adapting to mental aspect of safety

Antone Exum appears physically ready to play NFL safety, but he spent the previous few months trying to learn the nuances and philosophies within the Vikings defense to put himself in position to contribute early.

Eventually, Antone Exum's versatility as a defensive back of all trades will be an asset.

He displayed immense flexibility in his responsibilities at Virginia Tech, despite a final season marred by injury. He started 35 of 44 games – playing cornerback, nickel back, free safety and strong safety.

Now he's trying to settle in at safety with an opportunity to at least compete for a spot as a game-day active player after being a sixth-round draft pick.

"Physically, it hasn't really been that much of a challenge. I played some safety in college, so this isn't my first rodeo with the safety position," Exum said. "The biggest thing right now is just learning the calls, being the quarterback of the defense and things like that. That's what I'm trying to get done right now.

"I'm trying to get down the calls and all the nuances of how they want things done here. I think I'm progressing pretty far."

His senior season as a Hokie was limited to just three games because of offseason surgery on his right knee and later an ankle injury suffered after his return. It was a quiet start to an otherwise productive career that saw him finish with 186 tackles, 36 pass deflections, six interceptions, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Exum said the defensive scheme with the Vikings is "fairly similar" to what was being run at Virginia Tech, but the difference lies in how the Vikings want things done within that scheme.

"He's doing well. He has moments like all young defensive backs do," head coach Mike Zimmer said. "He has moments where he's good. He started out strong, hit a little bit of a plateau and so now he's starting to get back with it again a little bit. The transition from him being a corner to a safety, it's not an easy transition all the time. But you expect those little bumps in the road. Right now he's plateaued a little bit. He's trying to work his way back to where he was. The more stuff you get in and the more stuff the offense has, it gets a little more complicated. He's smart enough to do it. It's just going to take him more reps to get him where he needs to be."

Exum's position flexibility eventually should be an asset, as the coverage skills he honed while playing cornerback should help when covering receivers as a safety. He said some teams looked at him as a cornerback and others as a safety before the draft.

"I played corner in college, so I have coverage skills at the safety position. I also have great size and physicality to come up and hit, so I can play free, strong, nickel, corner, so just the versatility in the back end and the playmaking ability is what I mostly bring right now," he said.

Despite being a rookie, Exum may be the thickest of the safeties on the roster. He is 6 feet tall, which is pretty average in that position group, but his 219-pound weight is heavier than any of the others, including the next-highest in Harrison Smith, who is listed at 214 pounds and 6-foot-2. In Exum's case, it appears to be a well-built 219 pounds.

Physically, he should have no problems with what the Vikings are asking of their safeties, so long as his injury issues as a Hokie don't follow him to the Vikings. Mentally, however, could be his greatest challenge to making a contribution early.

"If you put the work in, you kind of make it a lot easier for yourself," he said. "I've been meeting with coach a lot. When I go home, I just go straight to my playbook, straight to my notes until I go to bed. The more work you put in and the more hours you put in studying, the easier it makes it out here on the field."

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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