Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s first choice at strong safety, Andrew Sendejo, has twice lost his starting gig already, once because of his reckless play and most recently because of an injury.
His backup, Robert Blanton, picked up where he left off last season, which is not a good thing, and he was not there to clean up the mess when Denver Broncos back Ronnie Hillman ran for a 72-yard touchdown two weeks ago.
So, Coach Zimmer, going into Sunday’s home game against the Kansas City Chiefs, how do you feel about the safety position right now?
“I feel good about Harrison [Smith],” Zimmer said, referring to his standout free safety.
His answer ended there, strongly suggesting that he still views the other safety spot as a problem. Perhaps this week, with the Vikings coming off their bye, is the one when Zimmer finally will try another alternative there.
Their best option, at least out of the unknowns, appears to be second-year safety Antone Exum, a converted cornerback who has been both publicly praised by General Manager Rick Spielman and ripped by Zimmer in the past six months.
Exum made an impression in the preseason by recovering a fumble and intercepting Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Jameis Winston, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, and returning it for a big gain. But beyond six snaps of mop-up duty in the Week 3 victory over the San Diego Chargers, he has yet to get an opportunity on one of the Sundays that matter.
Exum had been splitting first-team reps with Blanton in recent practices. Sendejo, who missed the loss to the Broncos because of a knee injury, returned to practice Wednesday, muddying the situation. But Zimmer isn’t ruling out giving Exum his first career start.
“Potentially, if I feel good about him,” Zimmer said.
Zimmer didn’t feel good about him a month ago, when he told reporters that Exum could be “a possibility if he could ever figure out what to do.” On Wednesday, the coach conceded that the 24-year-old had made “some” progress in that regard.
Exum said he now has a better understanding of what Zimmer wants.
“Just a guy who does his job, doesn’t try to do too much, will be lined up correctly, perform his assignment and tries to not play out of the position,” Exum said. “Don’t go out there and overly try to make plays.”
Smith has seen improvement from his young teammate in that area.
“You don’t have to do anything crazy,” Smith said. “You just have to do your job.”
Exum had a few different jobs during his college career at Virginia Tech. He started off as a safety, playing both free and strong, and also got action at nickelback. He moved to cornerback in his junior year and played well. But he tore his ACL in the spring of his junior year and subsequently became a sixth-round pick of the Vikings, who coveted his versatility.
Off the field, Exum is a sneakerhead who owns about 200 pairs of shoes. He has long been intrigued by fashion and says a clothing shop back east sometimes consults him when bringing in new items. And when he gets downtime, the hip-hop aficionado, who is often spotted in the locker room with giant headphones around his neck, writes and records rap verses of his own.
“I do that just for fun sometimes,” Exum said. “I’ve always liked music.”
As a teenager, Exum used to freestyle rap with his friends. In college, he started recording songs and posting them on YouTube. His song “Revis” was an ode to New York Jets All-Pro Darrelle Revis and a shout-out to his fellow corners. In “You Know It,” he boasted he was the best cornerback in college football.
He hasn’t uploaded a video to YouTube in two years, probably because he is now busy trying to show Zimmer that he is the best strong safety on the roster.
Zimmer said the situation at that position is a “fluid” one.
By too often missing tackles or blowing assignments, Sendejo and Blanton have shown they aren’t long-term solutions there. But Zimmer has been hesitant to turn to one of the team’s three young safeties, which include practice-squaders Anthony Harris and Brock Vereen, the former Gophers standout.
If Zimmer finally gives the 6-foot, 219-pound safety his first opportunity to start against the Chiefs, Exum plans to pounce on it, something his predecessors have not done.
“I definitely think I’m ready now to get a shot out there,” Exum said.