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New defensive coordinator optimistic with the pieces he has

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  • July 31, 2012 - 2:21 PM

After 10 seasons as a defensive backs coach in Indianapolis, Alan Williams is getting his first chance to coordinate this season with the Vikings. After Tuesday morning's training camp walk-through, Williams met with reporters for the first time in Mankato and had plenty to say. Here are four things you should know.

1) The push to reduce Antoine Winfield's workload is on.

Winfield turned 35 in late-June and is entering his 14th NFL season. He knows he's getting up there in age. Frazier knows it too. And Williams is plenty aware of Winfield's rising odometer as well.

So what's the vision for Winfield's role in 2012? At present, he and Chris Cook are the team's top two cornerbacks. But it's been common in camp for Cook and Chris Carr to be playing outside in nickel packages with Winfield in the slot. And as the season progresses, the hope is to gradually reduce Winfield's workload.

"We realize that there are only so many reps that a body has," Williams said of Winfield. "So we want to be smart about how we use him, about how we play him. And really, some of that’s going to be determined by how fast some of our younger guys and some of the guys that we brought in come up to speed. So that’s yet to be determined. But we do know that he’s going to be on a pitch count. What that pitch count is I don’t know yet."

If the desire is to ultimately use Winfield in just a nickel role, the Vikings will need a few of their other corners to step up and stabilize the position. Maybe that means Carr or fellow veteran Zack Bowman use their skills and savvy to bolster the defense. And maybe the hope is that rookie Josh Robinson -- out right now with a hamstring pull -- or second-year guy Brandon Burton make big leaps in their development.

But the big picture hope is that Winfield can transition into a lesser role that allows him to be most effective when he is on the field.

2) Harrison Smith will be starting by Sept. 9, the day the Vikings open the regular season against Jacksonville.

Williams didn't say that Tuesday. We're simply inferring as much. It's clear the Vikings coaching staff loves Smith. And they've been straightforward in explaining why the rookie out of Notre Dame has been taking his reps with the second unit early in training camp.

"When guys come in and they’re new, especially rookies, I like to have them earn their spot," Williams said Tuesday. "So even though Harrison is doing well and some of the other guys are doing well, it’s important that guys earn the spot -- that I don’t make that decision [early] but that decision is made based on what we see on tape."

The Vikings coaching staff has raved about Smith's ability to understand the defense as a whole. He's rarely out of position and can direct traffic from the back end of the secondary .

"Right now he’s better at everything than I really thought," Williams said. "He’s a tall guy and usually tall guys are a little bit leggy and might not be that quick-footed. But right now, he’s excelling at pass coverage."

The next challenge for Smith: proving he can be reliable in run support as well.

The Vikings admiration of Smith, remember, spiked at the Senior Bowl in January. Williams was hired as the new coordinator just a week earlier and had an opportunity during that stretch  to work closely with Smith in Mobile, Ala.

Said Williams: "We liked him from the onset. We were surprised at how well he moved. And everything you may read in the paper about him being smart, being a playmaker, moving to the ball well, it’s all true. We just want to see how high he can rise and how quickly he can rise."

3) As has been well-documented, Williams prefers to run a version of the Tampa-2 defense.

Williams doesn't hide his admiration for former Colts coach Tony Dungy, one of his mentors. He's also had nothing but praise for his new boss, Leslie Frazier, with whom he worked during the 2005 and 2006 seasons in Indianapolis. It's no wonder then that Williams' defense will be very similar to what the Vikings have been running since Frazier arrived as the coordinator in 2007.

Williams said he'll have his own twists added in and is putting an emphasis on finding out which of his players have exceptional skills in certain areas with the hope of turning those guys loose to do what they do best.

The new defensive coordinator has also made recurrent references to using a hockey line-change philosophy. specifically with his defensive line. The motive?

"To keep them fresh, keep them running so they can make plays," Williams said. "And when we’re at the end of a ballgame and the game is on the line, we’ve got to close it out. It’s just that. We want the guys in, we want the guys fresh. And we want to close it out."

For the record, the starting defensive line unit consists of Jared Allen and Brian Robison at the ends and Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion at the tackle positions. Backing them up with the second unit: D'Aundre Reed and Nick Reed at the ends and Christian Ballard and Fred Evans at tackle.

4) Williams has loved what he's seen so far from Guion at nose tackle.

Guion is a first-teamer right now, holding down the middle of the defensive line with 10th-year veteran Kevin Williams. And it's believed that the fifth-year tackle out of Florida State is ready to make big strides forward in 2012. Guion has always been praised for his athletic ability and quickness. And Alan Williams believes he's plenty stout enough to anchor inside as a run-stuffing space filler.

So that competition between Guion and Fred Evans for the starting nose tackle spot? It sure seems like Guion has a hold on it right now, delivering what Williams called a "phenomenal" performance in camp so far.

"It may not seem like it to the naked eye," Williams said. "But there are some clips of him just getting off blocks, running to the ball, pursuing. On Day 2 he made a play outside the numbers running to the football. We've been very pleased with him."

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