Jeff Gladney is too short. His 40-yard dash and 3-cone drills were pretty meh. His arm length and hand size isn’t much different from your local bank teller. But what made Gladney one of the top cornerbacks in college football and the 31st pick in the NFL Draft was everything else.
When Gary Patterson recruited the 5-foot-10, 191-pound defensive back to TCU, he had never played corner before. He was a wide receiver in a Wing-T offense who fit the bill for Patterson’s vision of his cornerbacks.
“He was untapped…the whole recruiting thing came down to: I put a premium on speed and how badly they want to play the game,” TCU’s long-time head coach said on a Zoom call with the Twin Cities media.
Gladney redshirted, learned to play his new position and got a chance to play regularly as a freshman. From there he picked up steam quickly as a top corner, in part because of his willingness to accept coaching.
“I told their scouts and 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,” Patterson said. “You’ve been through all that and you know how to move forward and say ‘yes’ and get going with what you need to get going with. I think it’s a good fit when it comes to those kind of things.”
Patterson noted that he’s known Mike Zimmer for a long time and understands that the Vikings’ head coach is demanding when it comes to defensive backs. On his Friday Zoom call, Gladney sounded prepared for that.
“They coach like that because they love the game,” he said. “It’s the message and not the delivery, so once your learn that, you’re pretty good with any coach. It doesn’t matter who’s coaching.’’
His development curve is evident in the numbers. Per Pro Football Focus, Gladney allowed A 57% completion percentage on throws into his coverage with three touchdowns given up and two interceptions as a sophomore. During his junior and senior years, opposing QBs in the pass-happy Big 12 only completed 41.5% of throws on 130 targets with four touchdowns and three picks.
SUBSCRIBE on YouTube for more Vikings content every day of the week. You can also subscribe to the Purple Daily podcast on Apple or Spotify.
Click here to download the SKOR North app from the Apple app store or Google Play store.
By his senior year, Gladney drew the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver each week.
“He’s not going to back down,” Patterson said. “Some of the best guys in the draft he played against every week and that’s where we put him. You can’t have a better resume.”
Vikings GM Rick Spielman said on his conference call Thursday night that Gladney’s competitiveness on plays in the red zone showed up — and was backed by the team’s analytics. As an undersized corner, being a top competitor is the only way to find yourself in an NFL locker room.
“I would say my bloodlines for sure because we’re a athletic family, competitive family for sure,” Gladney said. “So even at just family functions we’re just all competing. I know exactly where it came from, racing my little cousins every day, and all of that.”
One of the toughest things to project from college to the NFL is whether a player can grasp complicated systems. Patterson pointed out that many NCAA football programs have simple assignments for cornerbacks, including more or less a game of Go Follow That Guy. But the TCU head coach says that wasn’t the case with his defense.
“We play concepts like you do route concepts, so when we call a call, they understand that within a concept of who he’s dealing with and who he’s going to talk to and how we’re going to do things,” Patterson said. ” It’s a learned skill.”
There will be many more learned skills to come in the NFL, including the possibility of playing nickel corner. Gladney did not play in the slot often, according to his head coach but his ability to grasp the TCU defense gives some confidence to the idea that he could play there. Gladney said he enjoys learning the concepts of the entire defense rather than just his job.
“My main thing when it comes to stuff like that is I want to help my safety as much as I can just like I know he wants to help me as much as he can,” Gladney said. “So, knowing what he does predicates what I do to make it an easier play for him. Just make it easier across the board.”
Even with the combination of coachability, competitiveness and a desire to learn more about the game, the curve is always steep for corners. They go from facing a few good receivers per year to future Hall of Famers and this year’s current circumstance may make it even tougher for players to adapt quickly. Also Gladney noted his coldest outdoor college game was in West Virginia. If the Vikings head to Soldier Field or Lambeau in December, that will be quite the change too.
But even in that case he will rely on his intangibles (and sleeves) to get him through hurdles as he did in college.
“He’s a guy that has really made himself into a player these last two seasons,” Patterson said. “He always had the speed and toughness but really has worked hard at becoming all the rest of it.”