Familiarity Helps Whitaker in Europe, NFL

Vikings cornerback Ronyell Whitaker may have been a little leery of going to the NFL Europe League to improve his skills, but now he says he doesn't regret a thing about that experience. Of course, it helped that he had some built-in familiar advantages.

Ronyell Whitaker's close ties to the Vikings helped ease his transition into playing in NFL Europe this spring.

The cornerback who signed with the Vikings in February after two seasons of trying to catch on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was admittedly a little hesitant about playing in Europe after some of his associates gave him mixed reviews on their experiences in the developmental league.

"I really didn't want to go because I really didn't know anything about the situation. I was going into the situation blind, but just hearing it from other guys who went over there, guys were telling me things like, ‘If you don't have to go, don't go. Trust me, you don't want to go over there.' I didn't know if it was bad or good," said Whitaker. "To this day, I still say going over there was the best experience I've had – meeting great guys, having to play in a defense that I knew was coming from the Bucs and also playing in this same scheme."

Those NFL Europe veterans were telling him it would be cold, he wouldn't get the proper treatment if he got injured, and he might be short on the necessary equipment. He said those were all unfounded rips, according to his experience.

But it did help that the head of equipment for Rhein was from the Vikings and took care of him. In fact, he was taken care of so well that he was often filtering down his perks to other teammates who might have needed an extra pair of cleats or gloves.

It was all part of part of a team effort that came together in surprising fashion, considering these were players being assembled from around the globe that didn't have prior relationships with their new teammates.

"That was probably the tightest-knit team I've ever been with, even in college. Our secondary over there was so tight, and everybody could coach everybody … and everybody listened to everybody," Whitaker said. "We all took different parts from each other to try to make our game better. That's what we did and that's what made us tight."

While Whitaker wasn't keeping in direct contact with the Vikings' coaching staff back in Minnesota, he did have a pipeline of information coming from his grandmother. The ties between defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin and Whitaker run deeper than just player and coach.

Tomlin knows Whitaker's agent and his grandmother. Tomlin is from Newport News, Va., while Whitaker is from nearby Norfolk, Va., and the connection to Whitaker, his grandmother and his uncle, former boxer Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker, helped the player and coach communicate through common ties.

And Ronyell Whitaker's time under Tomlin in Tampa Bay is an obvious advantage for a player trying to make the roster of a new team.

"I feel like since I know the ‘D' I'm a step forward than I was last year playing with the Bucs. I don't want to come here and step on anybody's toes. … I'm just going to step back, play my position and if guys have questions I'll be glad to help them. But I just want to come here and take advantage of my opportunities," Whitaker said.

It helps that the defense is "identical" to what Tampa Bay was running, he said. "It's like (Tomlin) took the board off the Bucs' wall and put it on the wall here. There are just two or three words that we changed for blitzes and things of that nature, but everything else is the exact same," Whitaker said.

Coaches with the Rhein Fire had also attended coaching clinics with Tampa Bay's coaching staff and learned the same defense. "Basically, I've stayed in the same system from the time I came into the league until now."

The final frontier of familiarity between Whitaker and the Vikings came in the form a future teammate Whitaker met in Europe. He and Vikings wide receive Aaron Hosack played against each other and talked about coming back from Europe and working to make the Vikings roster.

Whitaker said he had a good time defending Hosack.

"He played big at times and he gave me great looks. We knew in the games we had to compete against each other because we knew we were coming back to see each other in camp," he said. "We went out there and we gave each other all we had."

Whitaker played right and left cornerback as well as nickel back, but he said he made a concerted effort to stay outside at cornerback so he would match up with the best receivers NFL Europe had to offer. Each of those receivers offered something different, even if none of them were the more complete package that makes today's superstar NFL receivers.

"One week you would face a guy that runs a 4.2, so this week in practice I have to work on getting out of my back-pedal early and being more patient in my bump and run. Then next week, I've got a guy like Hosack, who is like 6-8 (actually, Hosack is 6-foot-5 and Whitaker 5-9), so I know I've got to focus on how I can outsmart him, being that he is bigger and taller than me," Whitaker said. "I've got to understand different situations – when can I get a jump ball or when he's going to try and block me. Some receivers are just more aggressive than others.

"I would say it was solid competition. You had some guys over there that ran great routes, you had some guys that had great hands. Some guys were maybe speedsters. Maybe you didn't see a receiver that was the total package, but each week it was something different. It gave you the opportunity to change up your game each week."

Viking Update Top Stories