EAGAN, Minn. — There are plenty of words to describe the Vikings defense, but the continuity of the unit might be the most beneficial.
As Minnesota enters the 2019 season, all 11 defensive starters have played in the system before. In fact, there are 18 players in all who are in at least their third season in Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s scheme.
But that cohesiveness extends to the coaching staff as well, as each defensive position coach has been with Zimmer since he arrived in Minnesota in 2014.
That includes defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, who is entering his 23rd season of coaching in the NFL, and has developed a rapport with Zimmer over the past five seasons.
“The thing is, I think this is a perfect role for me. This is my third head coach that has been a DB coach, OK? So this is not new,” said Gray, who also worked with Jeff Fisher and Pete Carroll. “Coach Zimmer is really, really knowledgeable of how he wants the DBs to look. And he understands that. So when he’s sounding things off of me, he wants to see what my vision is for those guys, and how can I fit mine with his?
“Because I know he has a picture of what he wants, and I’ve gotta keep mirroring mine to where it fits his. So we’re talking about certain things, ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about that?’ And then I’m trying to feed off of him, ‘How does it look?’ ” Gray added. “Because I know he’s a visual guy, and he wants it to look the right way before we go out on the football field and practice it. So we kind of talk, but I think I’m learning so much more than I ever had from a guy who’s hands-on, and I know he’s going to be that way every day.”
Here is a quick bio on Gray:
— Gray has twice-been a defensive coordinator in the NFL, including with Buffalo (2001-05) and Tennessee (2011-2013).
— He has helped eight different defensive backs, including Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, make the Pro Bowl. The six others happened with Tennessee, Buffalo and Washington.
— Gray was a two-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler during his nine-season NFL career. He was with the Rams from 1985 to 1991 before spending 1992 with the Houston Oilers and 1993 with the Buccaneers.
— Gray was a standout defensive back at the University of Texas, where he was a two-time All-American and Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
The Vikings current crop of defensive backs consists of 17 players, the most of any position group.
There are stars such as Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, those on the rise such as Anthony Harris and Mike Hughes and promising rookies such as Marcus Epps and Kris Boyd.
Gray said he relies on a trio of veterans to help lead the group on and off the field.
“We drafted Trae [Waynes], but Harrison and Xavier were already here. So we kind of got those guys young, and the good thing is, they have grown up in this system,” Gray said. “They understand what we’re trying to get done, and now they’re the leaders of the group.
“It’s not a bunch of guys who are trying to figure [things] out – those three guys understand what we’re trying to do, and now you’ve got to carry the message [of] ‘Hey, here’s the standard of the secondary.’ ” Gray added. “They get young guys to understand what the standard is. We’ve had different guys, like Robert Blanton was here, then we had Andrew Sendejo, now we’ve got Anthony Harris. Those are really good football players that left, but the next guy has to step up in order for the secondary to be where we want it to be.”
Gray said that while Smith and Rhodes might be the All-Pros of the group, Waynes and slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander have provided tremendous depth in recent years.
Gray recalled how each player had to wait his turn to start, only to thrive later on.
“The thing is, when we drafted Trae, we had [Terence] Newman here. So we were getting Trae into the scheme of things, trying to get him to understand, ‘Hey, look – you’re going to be the next guy. You can’t just accept a backup role.’ So the good thing we had was a three-corner system,” Gray said. “And that helped us tremendously because Xavier didn’t have to play every snap, and neither did Trae. But eventually those guys graduate, and now you don’t have Terence Newman, now it’s Trae and Xavier. So, ‘Trae, you are the next guy. … [You’ve] got to think about being the best corner in the league.’
“And then you’ve got Mackensie, who basically did the same thing. Mackensie was going a little bit with Captain [Munnerlyn] when he came in, then it was Mackensie and Newman, now all of a sudden, ‘Mack, it’s your job.’ OK, ‘How are you going to handle being the guy?’ ” Gray added. “And, ‘Can you handle when somebody else is pushing you?’ To me, that’s how you keep your program going. It’s not just one guy that’s going to be here and you never push the next guy.”
Hughes was off to a flying start in 2018 when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 6. By then, he had already tallied a pick-six, forced fumble, fumble recovery and three passes defensed.
Gray noted he has been helping Hughes with his preparation in the meeting rooms although the 2018 first-round pick did not participate in spring practices.
“The big thing we do with Mike is the mental part of the game. Mike was really a smart guy when he came in,” Gray said. “He caught onto stuff real fast, so you know he studied. It wasn’t by luck.
“So mentally, I challenge him every day … because we know when he gets back, the physical part is what’s going to be the catch-up. I don’t want you to have to catch up mentally and have to catch up physically. I’m challenging him every day in the meeting room,” Gray added. “That’s the good thing about him. He doesn’t take days off because he’s not playing.”
And as for the rookies, which Gray has six of in his group, he is constantly reminding them about the value of hard work — especially when nobody is watching.
“You have to apply yourself. That’s the thing that I’ll always tell a young guy: ‘The only reason you’re not playing is because you don’t have experience.’ And experience means time on task,” Gray said. “If you don’t put extra time in as a young guy, you can’t catch up with the old guy. You’ll always be behind. So you have to do extra things when they’re not looking to catch up with them.
“You’ve gotta study extra. You’ve gotta be on the football field early or stay later. So that’s how you put your time in,” Gray added. “Because if you leave the same time Xavier leaves, you’ll never catch Xavier. I’m always talking to those guys about that.”