By Lindsey Young, For vikings.com
Heading into the 2015 season, one question buzzing around the Minnesota Vikings is who will start at safety opposite locked-in Harrison Smith.
Although Robert Blanton looks to have that upper hand, Antone Exum, Jr. is making his case on the field to earn a starting slot. Exum, unofficially slated as the second safety behind Smith, knows he has a lot to offer this team.
"I bring a physical mentality to the table, and a playmaking ability," Exum said. "I can affect the game, make big plays. I think I'm a high-energy guy."
Football has always been in Exum's blood. In fact, he started playing at only 5 years old … as an offensive lineman.
"I played as a lineman on my little league team," he said, laughing. "I didn't start playing skill positions until my second year."
While he didn't know it at the time, Exum's switch to defensive back as a first grader proved to be a good move. Eighteen years later, he's prepping for his second season with the Vikings.
Exum fell to the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he is here to prove his caliber is much higher. As a sophomore and junior at Virginia Tech, Exum played both safety and cornerback and drew plenty of attention at each position.
In 2011, he started at safety and led the Hokies with 89 tackles while adding five tackles for a loss, an interception, 10 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. In 2012, Exum suited up at cornerback and recorded 48 tackles, five interceptions and 16 pass breakups.
Exum finished his junior year so highly ranked among defensive backs that he considered leaving a year early, but he decided against it and returned for one more season. In 2013, he suffered a torn ACL during a pick-up basketball game and dropped significantly in the projections following the injury.
"That was a trying time for me during the Draft period," Exum said. "I was ranked as high as the No. 1 cornerback in my junior year. I was going to leave early, and I decided to come back for another year. Two weeks later I hurt my knee. But I had faith in God that everything was going to work out, so here I am now."
Exum used the late-round selection as nothing more than motivation, looking to make an immediate impact in Minnesota. The rookie had a mostly quiet start last season, but he capitalized on a few big plays and tackles over the final four games.
When asked if fans can expect to see him pick up where he left off, Exum smiled and nodded his head.
"Hopefully I'm a little further than where I was at the end of last year," he said. "I think I am – I'm able to play faster and make plays. I'm doing a better job of being consistent and communicating. One thing I pride myself on is being around the ball and playing as an anchor. That's really the only way I know how to play."
Upon coming to Minnesota last year, the young athlete received some criticism on his level of maturity. Since then, however, Exum has refocused his energies, and it hasn't gone unnoticed.
"[Antone] has grown up a lot," said head coach Mike Zimmer. "Now it seems important to him. It seems like he's understanding what the coaches want."
For Exum, every day at training camp brings a new opportunity to learn, improve and impress on the coaches the way he knows he can impact the lineup.
"It's not what I think about my game," Exum said. "It's what [the coaches] think about it – and that's who will be on the field. I'm still working to compete, but I definitely think I have the skill set to be a starter."