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Xavier Woods' Smarts Enabling Fresh Start with Vikings

Ask anyone in the Vikings organization about Xavier Woods, and the first descriptor offered will be, "Smart."

Head Coach Mike Zimmer? Smart.

Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson and Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer? Smart.

Fellow safety Harrison Smith? Smart.

Receiver Adam Thielen? Smart.

Linebacker Eric Kendricks? You guessed it.

General Manager Rick Spielman? "His intelligence."

Well, you get the point. Maybe X — it's pronounced in his name — marks the smarts.

Minnesota signed Woods this offseason to pair him with Smith as it injected multiple veterans into the secondary.

All of the above credited Woods' smarts for his quick start that includes intercepting Kyler Murray in Week 2 and forcing a key fumble by DJ Moore at Carolina in Week 6.

Asked about the source, Woods explained, "I would say just my study of the game. I study this game so much. I've watched a lot of film over the course of the years, and repetition and confidence also plays a part and just seeing things over and over again.

"Offenses run the same plays," Woods added. "They just run them different ways and set them up different ways, so I would say studying and the repetition."

Originally a sixth-round pick by Dallas in 2017 out of Louisiana Tech, the 26-year-old credited Kris Richard, his Cowboys position coach from 2018-19, with boosting his ability to "put things together and really learn what an offense tries to do and how an offense tries to break a defense down or attack a defense or scheme a defense runs."

During free agency, the Vikings combed through all of the Cowboys game film to assess Woods and look past what Spielman described as "a little bit of a down year" in 2020 to project how he'd fit here.

"We saw a lot of the physical traits and characteristics that we look for in that position," Spielman said. "He came in here, he's a great communicator on the back end, and he has the athletic skill set, and you see him, especially over the last two weeks, getting more and more comfortable in the defense and making all the calls and the adjustments.

"The chemistry that's created between him and Harrison, between him and the secondary, that continues to evolve, and you're starting to see that as he progresses through the season," Spielman added. "He's played especially well these past two weeks."

Smith said Woods hit the ground running in the film room, easily walking through approaches to potential scenarios.

"He's always really alert with those things. On game day, safeties need to talk to each other quite a bit," Smith said. "He's always yelling to me and seeing if I have anything to say back, things like that. Pre-alerts in the huddle and things we have to remember. He's a very smart guy."

Asked what stands out about Smith, Woods said, "How smart Harry is."

He elaborated that Smith's intelligence borders on clairvoyance or a sixth sense.

"I mean, I see the field and I study it a lot, and I see things how offenses see things, but Harry sees it before it even happens," Woods said. "Harry is just a smart football player, and I've been blessed enough to be in this position to learn from him and see how he works and studies and practices and sees things and to be able to add that to my game."

Adam Zimmer said Smith can ease things for any safety that is paired with him but added, "I prefer it be with somebody like Xavier."

"I think [Smith] had the same relationship with Anthony Harris last year, so I think Harrison will make it work with whoever he's lined up with, but having a guy like Xavier is really valuable for us," he noted.

The synching of the safeties happened almost instantly, back to their first time on the field together in the spring for Organized Team Activity Practices.

"It is rare. I remember the first OTAs, it's a brand-new system to Xavier, and he's making all the calls and communicating with Harrison," Adam Zimmer said. "That shows how smart Xavier is, number one, but also how they can help each other over the training camp and OTAs and all the practices that we have – I think they've just jelled immensely."

Thielen also took notice of Woods' presence at those practices.

"From the first day he got here I remember [thinking], 'Yeah this guy's pretty dang good.' [I went up to] Harrison and [said], 'Man, this guy's really, really good.' " Thielen said. "And just how he plays the game. How he's able to see the field, how he's able to take away certain things that we're trying to do. And then now for him to go in there and show it on game day. What a great addition to this team. [We're] lucky to have him."

In addition to his normal film study, Woods will bring in-person knowledge of the multiple threats the Cowboys pose.

Quarterback Dak Prescott has a passer rating of 115.0 this season, which ranks fifth in the NFL. Receivers CeeDee Lamb (497 yards, four touchdowns) and Amari Cooper (373 yards, four touchdowns) and tight end Dalton Schultz (359 yards, three touchdowns) have moved the ball and put points on the board.

And running back Ezekiel Elliott has rushed for 521 yards and five scores through six games, enjoying a Renaissance with the return of Prescott from an injury in Week 5 of 2020.

It also will be a reunion with former teammates in the Cowboys secondary like C.J. Goodwin, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown. Woods teamed with Goodwin for his final three seasons and with Lewis and Brown every year he was in Dallas.

Woods said he didn't really talk to other Vikings teammates who have faced their former teams this season, but he noted they showed their desire with their demeanor throughout the week of preparation.

He might be tempted to talk a little trash, but the most important words will be for his current teammates to help earn bragging rights over his friendly first-time foes.

"He's a very smart guy, as far as knowing what he's got to do immediately and being vocal about it, too," Kendricks said, "He lets you know what he thinks, as far as what we should be playing. When you get that clear communication, it's easy to play with someone, whether you're right or wrong."