The Vikings returned every member of their high-powered secondary partially responsible for the franchise’s first No. 1 defense in points and yards since 1970. Then they drafted cornerback Mike Hughes with their top pick.
It still might not be Jerry Gray’s most talented group as the Vikings defensive backs coach enters his 20th season in the NFL teaching ranks.
Gray, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the L.A. Rams, has coached a treasure trove of high-profile cornerbacks and safeties including Antoine Winfield, Lawyer Milloy, Troy Vincent, Nate Clements and Terrence McGee. That was just the 2003-05 Buffalo Bills. The 2007 and 2008 Washington Redskins featured five top-10 draft picks in the two secondaries led by Gray.
“Had Shawn Taylor, LaRon Landry, Sean Springs, Carlos Rogers and Fred Smoot was a second-round [pick]. I had one other: DeAngelo Hall,” Gray said before he chuckled. “Yeah, I was blessed.”
In Minnesota he has worked with All-Pros Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes. The Star Tribune recently caught up with Gray after a Vikings practice to discuss the secondary’s younger players, their roles and his teaching methods.
Q: After having one of the league’s best defenses last year, you added Mike Hughes in the first round. How is he fitting into your group so far?
A: He’s fitting in. He’s learning. He’s a rookie. I think that’s a lot of times, guys forget about what happens when you go from college to pros. The NFL is a lot more demanding mentally. He’s learning that. It’s not all about talent, running the 40 and stuff like that. It’s about can you get into the playbook? Do you make mental mistakes? All those things have to start taking priority right now. We give you a bunch of stuff and we’re trying to learn how much can you absorb in order to be prepared? Because right now it’s mental not so much physical.
Q: Saw you talking with Mike during some drills, looked like you were going over something to do with the slot cornerback position. Is that part of throwing as much at him to see what sticks?
A: Yeah I’ve been kind of fortunate enough to do that with all the young guys we’ve drafted. Drafted Trae [Waynes], we did it with him. Can you handle this? Because a guy that can play two positions, it’s really valuable. If a guy can play corner and nickel, it’s a plus for us because we can get an extra spot. If you got a guy who can only play one position, then you have to groom another guy.
Q: How long does it take to figure out if a player can handle nickel?
A: I think when we go through minicamp, that’ll give [Mike] like 13 practices and you should be able to see ‘OK, can he do it? Can he not?’ Then start of training camp, can he pick it back up? That’s a telltale sign if he can do it or not. Because there’s a lot of technique stuff that is involved with it.
Q: There’s a lot more responsibility in the playbook for a nickel cornerback, correct?
A: Oh, a whole lot more. Trust me. If you’re a nickel, you’re a glorified linebacker. You’ve got to be able to cover and do all those things. That’s why you see Mackensie [Alexander], who kind of took another step up [in 2017]. You’ve got Terence Newman who’s already mentally prepared, who keeps making plays. Marcus [Sherels], the same way. So we got a lot of guys who can play that position. We’re just trying to see can another young guy absorb as much as he can?
Q: Where do you see Mackensie’s development at entering his third year?
A: To me, I talked to Mackensie about growing mentally. Now you know the position, you know what you should be doing, now go play. Other than, ‘Where’s my alignment? Where’s my assignment?’ You’re past that. Now it’s your job to ‘Am I mentally prepared to go do what I need to do?’ Not so much think about where my alignment is.
Q: Did you see him progress mentally last year?
A: Yeah, yeah. You see it a lot. You see a lot when guys aren’t just thinking. When they don’t have to think about what they have to do, you see the football player take another step. When I see guys always make mental mistakes, it’s hard for you to make a mental mistake and take a step up athletically. Because this is all the reverse. When you’re in college, they look for you to be more athletic. The mental mistakes may show up, but you’re more athletic than the next guy. Here, if you make a mental mistake, your athletic ability will never show up because you’ll keep getting beat.
Q: Did you get everything you wanted out of that slot position last year?
A: Yeah. We had a combination of Mackensie and Newman doing it and they did a really good job. They were able to hold down guys we needed to. Do we have to put a smaller guy here? What about a Newman? OK, we played him against two tight ends sometimes. Now he’s really a linebacker and he can play a tight end. When you watch our film, we did a really good job of matching guys to their ability. Getting the blessing with Mike, I think he’s going to add to what we can keep doing.
Q: Can you keep six or seven corners on this roster?
A: Hey, if they keep adding them I’m not going to turn them away.
Q: Mike Zimmer said at the end of last season he helped Trae Waynes less with play calls. How did you see that manifest in practices?
A: The thing I talked to Trae about is going into your fourth year, you don’t need to worry about your alignment or assignment anymore. We’re past that. You took a step up in your physical ability making tackles, because I thought he was one of the most physical guys in the secondary that we had as a corner making tackles. The next step is do the same thing in the passing game. So this offseason is going to be your passing game deal, where you have to take a little more risk in making a play on the ball.
Q: What’s the management like having guys on varying rules of whether they can take chances or not?
A: That’s where the teaching comes in at. I don’t teach every guy the same. I try to take an individual approach with each guy and look at their growth. Xavier you’re like this, you’re past those levels. If I have a young guy, I’m going to keep you more in the classroom. Then the more you show me, the more I’ll give you. I teach more like an old-school teacher other than a professor and teach everyone the same. I don’t do that. I’ve seen where guys can get lost in the wave and then that guy is cut. He had the ability to play, just not prepared to.
Q: Haven’t seen you bring out the boxing gloves [used plenty early in Xavier Rhodes’ career] yet?
A: Not right now, we kind of talked a little bit about them. We talked a little bit about the gloves [to prevent grabby play], about the blinders. For guys that love to look in the backfield, I put blinders on them to where it takes their peripheral vision away. They hate that. So there’s little things I’m always trying to create to help him get better, because I know your habit is — if you have a bad habit of looking, you’re not a bad player. You just like to look at the quarterback, because that’s what they do in college. So I have to teach you how to not do that. Either by telling you, and you get it, or by putting something in your helmet — then you get it.
Q: Going back to the end of last season, what do you think happened in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia?
A: I don’t know. I think sometimes we look back and say what did we not do? Were we prepared to do what we were supposed to, we just didn’t go out there and execute. I think once the thing started rolling, we didn’t get that momentum back. I think we started off with the momentum. We just didn’t capture it back. That’s one of the thing about NFL games, especially big games. ... Someone along the way has to say hey they’re up 14-7. They got an interception and ran it in for a touchdown. That’s not the end of the world. Let’s stop the bleeding and go little by little to take that thing back. I’m not taking anything away from Philly, because they were really good. I thought they were probably one of the best teams in the league last year, especially on defense. But that’s the thing we got to keep doing. We have to understand when to get the momentum back, when to shut it down and play like we did at the beginning of the year.
Q: Did you pick anything up from John DeFilippo (former Eagles QBs coach) and Philly’s plan?
A: Yeah, we didn’t ask about the game but just about what can we get better at? What are we trying to do? How can we get to the next level? That’s really what we’re trying to do.