*EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – *Antone Exum, Jr., has always wanted to try his hand at nickel cornerback in the NFL, and he’s gotten a chance of late to show coaches what he brings to the table there.
Second-year cornerback Mackensie Alexander has primarily filled the nickel role on the first-team defense, including in both preseason games. But Exum, who has been listed as a safety since being drafted by the Vikings in 2014, has also been given reps at nickel – in addition to safety – throughout training camp and the preseason.
“I’ve kind of always wanted to do it,” Exum said. “I like corner, I like the position. I love safety, too, but I always felt like I could offer something to the defense at that position.”
During his college career at Virginia Tech, Exum was a versatile athlete who played safety and nickel as a freshman in 2010, safety and rover in 2011 and solely cornerback in 2012 before moving to safety as a senior.
As a cornerback in 2012, Exum recorded five interceptions and 48 tackles.
Now getting a shot back in the slot, Exum said that he’s enjoying the position.
“I think with increased reps that I’ve been getting there since training camp, I’ve been getting a lot better and more comfortable,” Exum said. “I like it a lot. I enjoy playing it.
“I think it’s made it a little easier because I played corner [in college], so I’m really comfortable playing 1-on-1 coverage and being in the slot versus guys,” Exum added.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said on Thursday that he’s been pleased with the way Exum has played at nickel.
“He’s doing good – he’s not making many mistakes,” Zimmer said. “Like I told him, it’s about being able to trust him in doing the things we want him to do.”
Zimmer added that he likes the “size and toughness and speed” that the 219-pound defensive back brings to the field.
“I just thought, ‘Let’s take a look,’ like we’ve done with some of these other guys,” Zimmer said. “The impressive thing about that is how fast he’s picked up the responsibilities of the nickel.”
Although it’s been several years since Exum lined up in the slot, he said the familiarity he once had has helped him with a fairly smooth transition. He added that he sees similarities between safety and nickel cornerback that allow him to play both positions.
“Both the safety position and the nickel spot require a lot of communication and talking out there,” Exum said. “So there’s a lot of different checks, guys moving around, you have to adjust to different things. So both of them require that mental [aspect].”
And he doesn’t mind the physicality aspect of the slot, either.
“Sometimes that nickel turns into like a linebacker,” Exum said. “So that’s definitely fun for me – getting in the mix.”
Zimmer also explained that playing in the slot requires a different skill set than playing outside cornerback.
He said that “everything happens quick in there” and while sometimes the position features smaller, quick players – such as Captain Munnerlyn, who held down the nickel spot for Minnesota from 2014-16 before returning to Carolina – it can also see success from bigger, more physical players.
“It’s a lot of change of possession, you still have to play the run, you have to blitz, and really, a lot of it is understanding the route combinations and formations, especially in zone,” Zimmer said. “But it’s more about understanding where your help is. And especially in the zones, understanding really, the route combinations.”
Zimmer referenced former safety Darren Woodson, a five-time Pro Bowler who played at Dallas while Zimmer was the Cowboys defensive backs coach and eventual defensive coordinator.
“Back in the old days, Darren Woodson, who was my safety, played nickel,” Zimmer said. “But a lot of it was because he could recognize patterns and combinations so quickly.”
“When he first got there, he was talking about my coverage ability and wanting it to get better,” Woodson said. “He was relentless throughout his whole first year of teaching me man-to-man techniques. Press technique at the line of scrimmage on the slot receiver, playing him off, playing him against the blitz, how to keep your feet hot when you’re covering a slot receiver.
In an interview with Vikings.com in 2016, Woodson credited Zimmer with helping him improve his man-to-man coverage skills against slot receivers.
“When he first got there, he was talking about my coverage ability and wanting it to get better,” Woodson said. “He was relentless throughout his whole first year of teaching me man-to-man techniques. Press technique at the line of scrimmage on the slot receiver, playing him off, playing him against the blitz, how to keep your feet hot when you’re covering a slot receiver.”
Zimmer has at times been referred to as a “DB guru,” and Exum is aware of the coach’s track record.
Exum is grateful for the detailed instruction he and the other members of the secondary receive from Zimmer but added that there’s little room for error.
“When we’re doing individual drills, he’s over there all the time coaching us up and stuff,” Exum said. “He’s always looking at the DBs, so I think we have the highest standard of, you know, there’s no allowed B.S. or mess-ups [in our group]. He’s definitely a DB-guy.”
Weatherly sees big improvement from 2016: The Vikings have a stable of productive defensive ends, ranging from Everson Griffen to Danielle Hunter to Brian Robison.
Rookie free agent Tashawn Bower has fared well in the preseason, and seventh-rounder Ifeadi Odenigbo has also shown flashes.
So, too, has second-year defensive end Stephen Weatherly, a player Zimmer said hasn’t gotten lost in the crowd.
“We haven’t forgotten about him,” Zimmer said. “We’ve used him in a lot of different ways and try to (have him) continue to get better. He’s a good athlete and he’s doing some good things.”
Weatherly spent most of the 2016 season on the practice squad but appeared in two games: on special teams against Jacksonville and in the season finale against Chicago, recording one tackle.
The former Vanderbilt standout said he’s much improved from a year ago.
“It’s a complete 180-degree turnaround,” Weatherly said. “I was kind of lost, they called me ‘Bambi’ a lot last year because I was trying to get my legs. But I’ve been in the system for over a year now, and I can show my talents.”
Weatherly has not recorded a sack in the preseason but had a quarterback hurry against Seattle.
*Latavius Murray looking forward to first game in Purple: *After practicing all week with the Vikings, running back Latavius Murray is expecting to see the field during a game for the first time since signing with Minnesota as a free agent this spring.
Murray was sidelined throughout OTAs, minicamp and most of training camp after undergoing ankle surgery, but he said he feels ready to go for this weekend’s Vikings-49ers matchup on Sunday Night Football.
He said it will “be a good feeling” to go against a defense other than his own for the first time in months, regardless of how much playing time he receives.
“I’m really not sure,” Murray about how long he’ll play. “I’m just happy that I’ll be out there. We’ll see how the work load goes.”
Murray said his expectations for Sunday are to help the Vikings add a second win to their preseason after falling to the Seahawks last week.
“Just be a part of that [win], make plays to allow us to do that and the offense to be successful and light up the scoreboard,” Murray said. “We want to be explosive, and I want to do what I can to make sure we’re doing that, whether we’re throwing the ball down the field and I need to protect, or I’m running the ball.”