There were high hopes for Asher Allen when the Vikings drafted him in the third round of the 2009 draft. A talented cornerback who seemed like a good fit in the Vikings' Cover-2 defense, Allen wasn't expected to make an immediate contribution to the defense because the Vikings had established veterans like Antoine Winfield, Cedric Griffin and Benny Sapp on the front line of the defense.
Allen played in 10 games last season and made one start. He said the learning that was done during his rookie season has allowed him to hit the ground running at full speed this season.
"Last year, I took my first lap around the track," Allen said. "I've had a chance to do that and got a chance to play and show that I could contribute. Things have slowed down a lot since last year and I'm able to play a lot more instinctively. I still have a few things to work on, but for the most part I feel a lot more like myself. I'm not spending as much time thinking about the plays and I'm able to do a lot more of what I feel comfortable doing on the football field."
Last year, Allen spent the first six games of his rookie season inactive, but he ended up playing in all the rest, including one start.
The most difficult part of his transition to the pro game, as many first-year players will attest, was adjusting to the speed of the game. Some of the best wide receivers he was asked to cover in his college career are average NFL players. At a position like cornerback, it's different than most. If an offensive lineman whiffs on a tackle, the quarterback gets sacked or throws the ball away and the offense lives to play another down. If a cornerback gets beat, too often it turns into touchdowns or explosive plays. Allen said that process was the most difficult part of his assimilation into the Vikings lineup.
"It was just technique stuff that I needed to get right," Allen said. "There are things you can get away with in college that you can't get away with here. Getting over that hump was the biggest thing. This year, I've been trying to not only improve my play on defense, but on special teams as well. In this league, you need to be able to contribute in different parts of the game, not just one."
With Chris Cook suffering a knee injury in Saturday's game, Allen could see extended action against the Denver Broncos on Thursday night, even if the regular starters don't play much.
Although the 2010 Vikings at first glance bear a striking similarity to the 2009 team – all 22 regular starters and three specialists from a year ago are under contract for 2010 – the cornerback position has experienced as many changes as just about any position on the field. Lito Sheppard was picked up after being released by the Jets and the Vikings used their first pick of last April's draft to bring in Cook.
While both of those players were brought in largely as a hedge on their bet that Cedric Griffin might not be able to return for the start of the regular season – Monday Griffin reiterated that it will be up to the coaching and medical staffs to determine when he is ready to get back on the field – Allen may have seemed like a man lost of shuffle.
However, he has made the most of his increased playing game and lived up to the mantra of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who has drilled into his young defenders that the NFL is a game of opportunity. Griffin's loss, in a roundabout way, could well turn out to be Allen's gain.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of the opportunity I'm being given," Allen said. "It's unfortunate that Ced is down, but this is a violent game and injuries happen. No team goes through a season without losing somebody. I'm just trying to make sure that there isn't a step backward for us with him down. All of us are trying to pick up the slack wherever each of us can, because we have some high goals here and can't let an injury here or there sidetrack what we want to accomplish."
There remains a certain level of uncertainty as how the playing time among the cornerbacks will be meted out. Sheppard was thought to be the frontrunner to start opposite Winfield when the Vikings start playing "for real." The coaches have made a concerted effort to let all of the cornerbacks, including Allen, in the running get a chance to fill the starting slot left vacant by the Griffin injury. The process has left the players themselves somewhat in the dark as to the plans the coaching staff has for dividing up playing time, but Allen said that, from his perspective, the process has been fair and allowed everyone to put their best foot forward to carve out their own niche in the defense and earn playing time.
"This preseason the coaches have tried to give everyone an equal chance of starting and having a chance to play against (first-team offenses)," Allen said. "They're still doing that evaluation and will continue to do it during the final preseason game. After that, we'll see how it all shakes out."
To some, it might seem that the players are somewhat powerless in that process. All they can do is put out their maximum effort and, when all is said and done, hope that when the Vikings head to New Orleans for the opener and beyond, that their names will get called to get on the field. Allen, however, sees it a different way. He believes each of the players (himself included) have the chance to control their own destiny and force their way on the field by increasing the level of their own play and show the consistency needed to be a contributor during the interim period that Griffin remains sidelined.
"You do have power with respect to how you carry yourself and how you play on the field," Allen said. "You can help your own cause by doing everything you can to make the defense better. They're going to play the guys who are making plays. If you can make the plays and be technically sound, the rest will take care of itself."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Asher Allen still fighting for starting role
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