Late in the 2014 draft, the Minnesota Vikings took a chance on defensive tackle Shamar Stephen in the seventh round. General Manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer both saw something they liked in the massive 6-foot-5, 310-pound player out of U-Conn.
As with all seventh-round draft picks, there were no guarantees, but with a new coaching staff coming in and the Vikings moving past the era of the Williams Wall, they were looking for a big nose tackle to clog the middle running lanes.
Two years later, Stephen has made the impression he was looking to as a rookie and has become a player whose roster spot has never been in jeopardy of being lost. He has become a valued member of the Vikings’ defensive tackle rotation because he has learned to embrace the defense that Zimmer and George Edwards have installed.
“I’ve been working hard to be prepared to come in when they ask me to, whether it’s for a few plays here or there or for most of the game,” Stephen said. “In this defense, we’re all asked to play a role and I prepare for whatever role I’m asked to play that week, regardless of how big or small it is.”
The defense can switch up from one week to the next depending on opponents, which means players like Stephen could be in for many plays in some games and far fewer in others.
But, regardless of his workload in a given game, he is determined to learn as much as possible about the specific game plan from one week to the next and come to define his role by his expectation that he will be a full-time player – even though he knows that is extremely unlikely in the Zimmer rotation system at defensive tackle.
“I pretty much prepare the same every week, even if I might not play as much some games,” Stephen said. “You never know what’s going to happen when the game starts. You have to be ready to go the entire game and be out there for a lot of plays. You can’t look at it that I’ll be coming in and out because, depending on situations, you may be out there a lot. So, you prepare like you’ll be out there almost every play.”
Stephen was pleasantly surprised when he got the start in the regular season opener – just the fourth start of his career. While he was still on the low end of the rotation – he was in for 22 plays, while teammates Linval Joseph (40 plays), Tom Johnson (29) and Sharrif Floyd (25) all saw more time – getting the distinction of being the starter, which he took a level of pride in.
“It was great,” Stephen said. “That hasn’t happened very often, so I was happy to head out there. But, once the game starts, you’re still asked to do what you’ve been taught from OTAs to training camp to preseason to now. I think all of us want to be out there as much as possible, but we know how this defense works and that means moving guys in and out regularly.”
For a player who was viewed as a long shot when he came to the team in 2014, Stephen has carved out a spot for himself in the Zimmer defense as a nose tackle assigned to stuff running plays and force teams to abandon what they want to impose on the Vikings.
The biggest achievement he has made is that he reached the point that his mind doesn’t swirl with the X’s and O’s of his assignments for given games. He has reached the level that veteran players who have long careers have achieved – not thinking too much, playing off of memory and enjoying himself.
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He knows his role is to be a cog in the bigger machine, but he has embraced it because he’s not looking over his shoulder, he’s looking ahead to the potential the 2016 Vikings have.
“I feel very comfortable with what I’m doing,” Stephen said. “This is my third year in the system and now it’s not so much about thinking about this or that assignment. It’s just about playing within the system. Once you get to that comfort level, the game slows down and you have fun doing your job and being effective.”