For Exum, it’s a mental game
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings drafted Antone Exum Jr. in the sixth round. He was able to make the team’s final 53-man roster after the preseason, but he did not see the field very often on the defensive side of the ball – just eight plays. Instead, he was primarily used on special teams.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said Exum came into the league a little immature. He thought that the player needed to grow up a little bit and learn what it truly meant to be a pro, but the coach has been happy with what he has seen so far.
“I think Antone is a, he’s improved a lot,” Zimmer said. “We had a couple guys last year who came in here as rookies that really didn’t know how to act and he was actually one of them. He’s grown up a lot. Now it seems important to him. It seems like he understands what the coaches want, what we want to do, what Jerry (Gray, defensive backs coach) is trying to get done with him, and he’s a good athlete. He’s improving everyday, he’s working real hard and so he’s proving to me that it’s a lot more important to him. Some guys, they come in the league and they think they’ve made it and they don’t understand what you have to do to become a professional football player. And he’s finally – I’ve had several talks with him – but finally I think he’s figured his stuff out a little bit.”
When asked if he agreed with Zimmer about how he was last year, Exum almost seemed at a loss for words. But after a few seconds of thinking he was able to come up with an answer. He did not come out right and agree with his head coach, but he does think he has matured since last season.
“I mean, if that’s what he thinks than I’ll go with it,” Exum said. “I think what matters is how I am now, how I’ve progressed, how I’ve matured to this point. Right now I know what it is to be a pro. I’m acting like that, handling my business like that, approaching everyday of work like that, so hopefully he notices.”
The second-year player did realize that there is still a lot he has to learn if he is truly going to make it in the NFL. That’s why he spent the entire offseason watching film and learning Zimmer’s defense.
He would dissect film by himself during the offseason. He wanted to see how he should make different checks, how he should progress through his calls and he is hoping all that work will pay off. The safety notes that not all changes in the offseason are physical, a lot are mental as well and some people seem to forget that.
At 6 feet, 219 pounds, Exum is already a physical specimen so he wanted to really work on the mental part of his game. After watching all that film in the offseason, he feels more comfortable and is ready to show it on the field.
“I’d say the mental aspect of the game,” he said when asked where he improved the most. “I’m just trying to get more comfortable and familiar with the playbook, making the checks and making the calls and things of that nature. So I can go out there and not let my mind tie up my feet and just play fast and make plays.
“I’m running around faster because I know what to do. I’m a lot louder out there as far as my communication is concerned, and thinking quicker on my feet with my calls.”
The second-year safety has one goal in mind for the 2015 season, and he hopes he can reach it by the end of training camp: “To start.” It may be hard for him to jump both Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton in training camp, though.
Zimmer indicated Exum has a chance to do that, but it probably won’t come by the end of training camp. Zimmer wants to see how he plays in game situations, so it sounds like the coach is going to hold off any big changes, if they come at all, until at least a decent preseason evaluation period.
“We’ll see when we get into the games,” Zimmer said when asked if Exum could jump Blanton and start. “All these things will get developed and get determined when we get into the preseason games. Especially for safeties, they have to be able to make checks and movements and all that, and I don’t know how he’s going to do at that, I really don’t. I think he’s athletic enough. I don’t know what kind of tackler he’s going to be, the instincts he needs, so that’s going to show up a lot more in the preseason games.”
It may take a while for Exum to reach his goal, so for now he just needs to continue to work hard in camp and make the most of every rep he gets. He feels as though he has been doing that already, so now it’s about how he continues from here.
“It’s been going real well,” he said.” I feel like I’ve been taking strides. I’ve been more consistent. I think I’ve been doing a good job.”
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