As the Minnesota Vikings look to improve their No. 7-ranked pass defense of 2014, there is really only one spot truly up for competition on defense – safety.
First-round draft pick Trae Waynes is expected win the starting left cornerback spot and second-round pick Eric Kendricks is expected to be inserted at middle linebacker. Free safety remains the domain of Harrison Smith, who is without a surefire running mate at strong safety.
Robert Blanton took 87.6 percent of the defensive snaps there, but after he was injured in December and missed one game, he didn’t regain the starting spot back from Andrew Sendejo.
The forgotten one at that position was Antone Exum. The then-rookie got less than 1 percent of the snaps on defense in 2014 but is hoping that turns around in 2015.
“I thrive on competition and I enjoy it. I think that makes teams better having a lot of good guys at every position,” Exum said. “I’m just out here trying to show what I can do.”
What he has found is that the natural progression of NFL players in their second season is following him. Last year, everything was new. His team was new. The position of safety was somewhat new. Practicing it at the NFL level was very new.
The toughest part of his transition from Virginia Tech to the Vikings was getting a grasp on every detail being thrown his way by a coaching staff dedicated to detail.
“Every team, coaches have different nuances that they want, how they want things done – how you line up, what foot moves first, all of that type of stuff,” Exum said. “Every coach is going to have their certain details that you have to get down, so that was probably the thing that I had to adjust the most to.”
While he was a regular contributor on special teams from Week 2 forward, playing 52 percent of those snaps, Exum only got eight plays on defense – against Detroit on Dec. 14.
“I just need to be consistent every day … earning the coaches trust that when I’m out there not only will I make plays to help the team, but I’ll know what to do every time and won’t be out of position,” he said.
Exum is expected to be in the mix for a starting spot this year, along with Blanton, Sendejo and maybe even Taylor Mays and undrafted rookie Anthony Harris.
Listed at 219 pounds, Exum is the biggest of top three expected to compete for the position (Mays is 225), and that could help as a run-stuffing presence.
Last year, the Vikings ranked 25th against the run, but Exum said his second season in Mike Zimmer’s defense is more comfortable.
“It’s real different because I’m playing a lot faster. My mind is not really tying my feet up as much,” he said. “I’ve got a better grasp of the playbook so I’m able to go out and use my natural ability a little bit more.”
He has plenty of natural ability, playing a variety of roles at Virginia Tech. Playing cornerback in 2012, he was an All-ACC selection. In 2013, he played only three games at safety because of a torn ACL.
His familiarity with multiple positions in his college secondary is considered an asset and helped hone his ability to recognize plays.
“I would say instincts,” Exum said when asked about his greatest asset as a safety. “Instincts, always being around the ball, making plays in some capacity. I’m always going to be around the ball or trying to make a play, whether it be tackling, trying to break up a pass, an interception, forced fumble.”
Last year, Exum didn’t have much of an opportunity to display his defensive versatility. This year, he’s in a battle for a chance at more.
Exum searching for consistency, opportunity
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