The past three years at TCU, Jeff Gladney lined up across from fellow first-round pick Jalen Reagor, dueling through one-on-one battles in triple-digit heat under the watchful eye of coach Gary Patterson, who was so bold on Friday to say Vikings coach Mike Zimmer “will be a mild cat compared to here.”
“Him and I are about the same. I think he’s the same way I am,” Patterson said of Zimmer. “And Jeff’s going to be able to handle that.
“He’s from East Texas. He’s country tough. He can handle those types of things. I told Jeff, ‘The bottom line is I think one of the reasons you might have a chance is because you’re a guy that can handle tough coaching and you’ve been through all that and you know how to move forward and say yes and get going.’
“It’s a good fit when it comes to those kinds of things.”
While Gladney was proving his mettle at TCU, Justin Jefferson tied for the national lead in receptions while playing with Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow in an LSU offense that shares plenty with NFL schemes.
Jefferson caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns for the national champions, playing in an offense that helped Burrow become the No. 1 pick and made passing game coordinator Joe Brady the Carolina Panthers’ new offensive coordinator.
“Pretty much a majority of the plays we ran at LSU, the NFL has those exact plays,” Jefferson said on Friday. “Drawing the different plays up to coaches and everything, they’re impressed because we have the same concepts, but different names for them. Coming into the league, knowing the things that I know and dealing with the offense that I dealt with definitely makes it a little bit easier.”
As the Vikings look to coax immediate production out of their rookie class despite a truncated offseason, it might help that their two first-round picks come with college experience that should translate well to what each will be asked to do in Minnesota.
Gladney faced receivers like Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Baylor’s Denzel Mims in college, shadowing receivers at times and also playing some of the pattern-matching coverages the Vikings use in Zimmer’s scheme. Jefferson had to learn a full route tree in Brady’s offense, which paired spread concepts with West Coast ideas that asked receivers to read coverages like they’ll have to do in the NFL.
Pressure on kids
After selecting Jefferson 22nd overall and drafting Gladney 31st on Thursday night, the Vikings had 12 more picks in a draft they could turn to for more rookie starters than usual. With Stefon Diggs in Buffalo, questions on the offensive line and four starting spots to fill on defense, the Vikings have made little effort to hide their need for first-year players to step in quickly.
They’ll have to do so in an uncertain environment, with NFL facilities closed because of coronavirus and virtual offseason programs replacing OTAs and minicamps this spring. Zimmer said Thursday night the Vikings put together videos with position-specific drills for players to practice on their own, before players can return for in-person practices at whatever point social distancing guidelines are lifted.
“The hard part is, we can’t be as specific with them because we are not coaching them doing these things, so we’ll have to go from there, ” Zimmer said Thursday night. “But when I started thinking about how this offseason was going to work, I started thinking back on the days where they didn’t have OTAs. They had one minicamp and they had a longer training camp, but they didn’t have OTAs and all this other stuff.
“To me, it’s going to be, how do we adjust better without having OTAs and getting ready for training camp and when we do get into training camp, understanding what is important with our guys.”
Gladney, especially, could find himself in a unique situation if he’s asked to play a significant role this year. He’ll join a Vikings cornerback group missing its three longest-tenured players from 2019 after the team cut Xavier Rhodes and let Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander leave in free agency. The 23-year-old Gladney joins 2018 first-rounder Mike Hughes, third-year man Holton Hill and second-year player Kris Boyd in a reworked group that quickly will have to handle one of the NFL’s most demanding positions.
His mentality, Patterson said, will help prepare him for the job. During a practice when the Horned Frogs didn’t have enough corners, Gladney took snaps with the first-, second- and third-team defenses so the team could get through its work. He played his senior season with a torn meniscus in one of his knees, working out at the combine with the injury before having surgery in March.
“Here we practice from 4-6 during the fall camp, so even coaches better be in shape,” Patterson said. “It’s going to be a heat index of 120-something, so he’s been through that, and you’re talking about offenses that go fast, even in practice where you’re going to get 18 reps in about eight minutes. … You’ve got a guy who understands how to do that, how to fight through all of that and how to play.”
And if Zimmer has a harsh word for his newest corner in Year 1, it won’t be anything new to Gladney.
“With coaches like that, you’ve got to get to where you know that they coach like that because they love the game,” Gladney said. “And it’s the message and not the delivery, so once you learn that, you’re pretty good with any coach. It doesn’t matter who’s coaching.’’