The Vikings hope Mackensie Alexander continues to have fun.
You’ll know if he is or isn’t. Alexander, the talented 24-year-old cornerback, wears his emotions on his sleeve. His celebrations “are a little different,” Alexander said, from the rest of his often understated teammates. The bursts of energy emerge after a great pass breakup, arms extended out to a T, mimicking the referee’s incomplete signal, before crossing them again and nodding his head.
After two NFL seasons of lessons learned, and some battles with coaches, Alexander earned the Vikings’ starting slot cornerback role. Now with fellow slot cornerback Mike Hughes out of the picture because of a torn knee ligament suffered Sunday against Arizona, Alexander will occupy an even larger share of the job in what could become a statement season.
Those lessons, Alexander said, are “understanding this defense more, listening, being more accountable.” His growing grasp of his role has made the game fun again for Alexander, who took pride in being Clemson’s No. 1 cornerback before accepting a nuanced role in Minnesota.
“I used to be so serious about my job. You can be serious, but you can’t be too serious because we change so much every week, every play and every set,” Alexander said. “You just have to understand what’s going on, be able to make the adjustments and move on.”
The Vikings are moving on after Hughes’ injury. The promising rookie had played nearly two-thirds of the defensive snaps (63.6 percent) this season while rotating with Alexander in the slot. Coach Mike Zimmer has also leaned on the “big nickel” package, featuring safeties in the slot between veteran George Iloka and third-year player Jayron Kearse.
With some of the NFL’s most productive slot receivers remaining on the schedule — including the Lions’ Golden Tate, the Patriots’ Julian Edelman and the Dolphins’ Danny Amendola — the Vikings will need all contributors to play well. Especially Alexander, whose quick-twitch reaction and speed best match up with those shiftier receivers.
On Sunday, the Vikings catch the injury-riddled Jets. They will be without their top slot receiver, Quincy Enunwa, who has been ruled out because of a high ankle sprain.
“Obviously, Mackensie will get some more work,” Zimmer said. “But Holton Hill might get some more work, Anthony Harris and Iloka, all those guys. We’re just going to try and do the best we can to move guys around to where [Alexander] can feel comfortable with playing the things we’re trying to get done that particular week.”
A game against another rookie quarterback, the Jets’ Sam Darnold, is another chance for the Vikings secondary to stockpile confidence three weeks after the Rams’ Jared Goff threw for 465 yards against them.
Alexander has found himself in the middle of some of the Vikings’ struggles this season. He got an earful from Zimmer during the Week 2 tie in Green Bay after turning tight end Jimmy Graham loose down the field for a big gain. Last week’s 27-17 victory against the Cardinals was a different story. Alexander got to flex after successfully defending critical throws to receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. on third and fourth downs.
“I thought he played a lot better this last week, did some good things,” Zimmer said. “He’s been more disciplined in coverage, I guess is the best way to say it. I think he understands things so much better now.”
Kearse, who was also Alexander’s college teammate at Clemson, said he has seen Alexander’s growth on and off the field.
“Just his attitude and how he’s attacking everything,” Kearse said. “That’s definitely been a big change I’ve seen in his game. He’s handling everything like a true pro.”
Alexander will get even more chances this season to prove himself before entering a contract year in 2019.
The Vikings hope the rest of this season is lined with Alexander’s celebrations, because that means he’s headed in the right direction.
“I just take them in and have fun with it,” Alexander said. “That’s what I’m trying to do each and every week is go have fun.”