The play took just a couple of seconds, but Xavier Rhodes had been waiting awhile to pounce.
During a rookie season in which he showed steady progress, the cornerback was tentative at times and could not come up with an interception. Now in his second season with the Vikings, Rhodes is learning to rely on his instincts in order to take the next step in his development.
Those instincts served him well early in Wednesday’s organized team activity workout when he read that his man was running a quick hitch route and jumped in front of a Matt Cassel pass.
It was only one play in a voluntary spring practice, but the encouraging words defensive backs coach Jerry Gray yelled out — “It’s about time!” — as Rhodes returned the interception for a touchdown were both a reminder of the expectations for Rhodes and an indication that he is heading in the right direction.
“He said basically it’s about time I trusted myself and break on the route and stop second-guessing,” Rhodes said.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is pleased with the progress he has seen from his secondary, especially Rhodes, during spring workouts and the 23-year-old cornerback has become a topic of conversation both at Winter Park and nationally. Rhodes is aware of that chatter from NFL analysts that he is a popular breakout pick in 2014, but he is trying to focus on the little things that he can control.
The coaching staff, particularly Zimmer and Gray, often can be spotted giving Rhodes pointers or words of encouragement during these sunny days on the practice fields. Veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn has been in his ear, too. There has been an emphasis on his technique in the hopes he can become a more consistent cover man and make more plays like he did Wednesday.
Rhodes also appears to be a little bigger, having benefited from a year in an NFL strength program.
“I feel good,” the former first-round pick from Florida State said. “I feel stronger, powerful, faster.”
Rhodes started the 2013 season as the team’s third cornerback but earned a starting spot in the base defense by the middle of the season. Like many rookie corners, he had growing pains. But Rhodes had started to settle in when he was lost for the season because of an ankle injury suffered in a Week 14 loss to the Ravens.
He finished his rookie year with 48 tackles and 10 passes defended but no interceptions.
Healthy now and feeling more comfortable, Rhodes has taken well to Zimmer’s instruction. If the coach points out something during meetings that Rhodes needs to improve, Zimmer will see him working on it the next day in practice. That has Zimmer, who helped get the most out of Bengals defensive backs during his six years as their defensive coordinator, excited about what Rhodes can become.
“He’s working very, very hard. He’s a good kid. We’ve been working on his technique quite a bit,” Zimmer said. “He wants to be really good.”
And the expectation in both the Twin Cities and beyond is that he ultimately will become that, perhaps as soon as this season. At least one prominent national website predicted that he will be “making the leap” to stardom in 2014. But instead of dwelling on that, Rhodes is focused on preparing himself to stick to established stars such as Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall this season.
“Just working on what I need to work on — my craft,” Rhodes said. “I’m not worrying what’s out there in the media. I hear about it a lot, but I just need to focus on me and not what everybody else thinks.”