Stephen strong in varied Vikings role

Shamar Stephen has been asked to do a lot for a seventh-round rookie and has come a long way with his increasing role.

Back in May when the Vikings made defensive tackle Shamar Stephen a seventh-round draft choice, both head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman oozed with confidence that they had a hidden gem on their hands that could develop into a solid, versatile NFL defensive tackle capable of playing both the 3-technique and nose tackle positions.

Six months later, with 2013 first-round draft choice Sharrif Floyd slowed with a knee injury, Stephen is being pushed into the spotlight as much more than just a role player. He has been asked to take on an expanded role, a challenge he is more than willing to take on.

“I feel like I’ve just been doing my role, doing my job and playing my fundamental technique to execute the game plan,” Stephen said. “I feel a lot more comfortable and confident in my play and trying to build on what I have right now.”

Stephen will be front and center as the Vikings try to shut down a Jets offense that is run-heavy, as proved Monday night when the team ran the ball 45 times before throwing its 10th pass of the game.

“We really wanted to establish the run. We thought that would be the best thing for our team in the situation, but we never envisioned we’d only throw 13 passes. That wasn’t the game plan,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “We did want to establish the run, and we did a great job of it. We had 200-some yards at halftime, and so we kept running. And then as the game played out, we kept getting backed up inside our own 10-yard line, so we’re just trying to get room to punt the football. And I think that kind of added to the rushing totals, but again I’m not apologizing for rushing for 300 yards. I’ll take that each week.”

The Jets don’t disguise much, so Stephen and the Vikings’ front-line defenders know what they are up against.

“We’re going to execute what we have to put forth in the game plan for (the Jets),” Stephen said. “We have a game plan in place to take on what they do and go after their strength.”

Stephen has been part of the rotation on the defensive line, but he has taken on a jack-of-all-trades type role. In one series, he will be in as a 3-technique defensive tackle replacing Floyd. In the next, he could be at nose tackle replacing Linval Joseph. While the job descriptions are different, Stephen is grounded by his grasp of fundamentals and concentrating strictly on the play and hand and not the bigger picture of how his role will eventually be defined.

“It’s a different assignment, but I just have to key in to what play is called and do my job for that play,” Stephen said. “I think the rest will handle itself.”

As a seventh-round draft pick with no guarantee he was going to make the final roster, Stephen has come a long way since the early practice days of May and even training camp in August. He has refined his game, absorbed what the Zimmer defense calls upon him to do in varied roles and has embraced it. Zimmer said Stephen graded out “really well” last week.

Along the way, Stephen has found himself in a much better comfort zone and is no longer asking too many questions. As he has learned, the question marks have disappeared and the comfort level has increased.

“I feel very comfortable,” Stephen said. “We’ve been doing this since OTAs until now. We’ve been doing it for months on end, so I feel comfortable with the technique from the 3-technique or the nose, so it doesn’t matter.”

A big key for him has been the veteran leadership that players like Joseph, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison have provided him. He had made it this far with pure athleticism. The veterans have helped him pick up on the small things that can be learned in practice and film study that have helped ease him into a comfort zone by learning more about technique, leverage and film-room work.

“(Learning) the little nuances, they’ve helped me a lot,” Stephen said. “They’ve helped with my technique, being able to read certain things the offense gives me and they’ve done a great job helping me out. All the veteran guys, they have their little things they key on. (Griffen) and (Robison) do a good job on that. The pick out little stuff out as they watch more game film. As a whole group, we do a pretty good job of learning the people we play.”

With Floyd likely going to either be out or limited Sunday, Stephen will once again be on the field for a considerable portion of the game with the Jets. He’s ready to embrace the challenge because he feels he has earned the faith of his coaches and teammates and wants to live up to those expectations.

“I feel like they trust me in what I’m doing right now,” Stephen said. “I’m just going off that and just doing my job and what I have to do.”

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