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Dantzler dazzles as Vikings' kiddie corps begins cornerback competition

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Minnesota Vikings defensive back Holton Hill gets set for a play during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

EAGAN — Cameron Dantzler didn’t win a job with the play he made near the end of the Vikings’ first full-padded training camp practice on Monday, but the third-round pick from Mississippi State definitely made an impression and, in this camp in particular, that likely means more than usual.

Here’s the play made by the rookie against wide receiver Adam Thielen.

Dantzler is among a group of young Vikings cornerbacks looking to make the most of their opportunity to replace departed starters Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes and nickel corner Mackensie Alexander. On one hand, it is a great opportunity. On the other, it’s a huge ask of guys who did not get the advantage of any offseason camps because of the coronavirus pandemic and also won’t see time in exhibition games before the regular season begins (assuming it does) on Sept. 13 against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Mike Zimmer’s defense has the ability to make a star out of a cornerback — that’s exactly what happened with Rhodes before his performance began to decline in 2018 — but it’s also a complex system in which the preference is to develop young corners slowly. That isn’t going to be possible this season.

The Vikings have 10 cornerbacks on their 80-man roster, including four rookies (first-round pick Jeff Gladney, Nevelle Clarke, Harrison Hand and Dantzler), three first-year players (Nate Meadors, Mark Fields II and Marcus Sayles), one second-year player (Kris Boyd) and two third-year guys (Mike Hughes and Holton Hill).

There is no Terence Newman to serve as an on-the-field coach for Zimmer and his long-time defensive backs coach, Jerry Gray, has been replaced by Daronte Jones. While the Vikings were able to have virtual meetings during the offseason, Zimmer acknowledged just how much work has to be done as his corners prepare to face Aaron Rodgers next month.

“We have to try to get the different techniques down first then we can talk more about schemes and things like that,” Zimmer said. “Initially, it’s about footwork and technique and obviously the different responsibilities they have on the defenses. But we go at a pretty good pace. So that shouldn’t be an issue.”

What Zimmer is going to have to figure out is who deserves to be starting in Week 1. Hughes, a first-round pick in 2018, is certain to get one of the assignments, if he can put injury issues behind him. Hughes was working with the first team on Monday, playing outside in the base defense and moving to the inside in the nickel package.

“Mike is a very talented kid. Good conscientious person,” Zimmer said. “He needs to continue to have more confidence in himself. He needs to have more belief that when he goes out there he can cover anybody. I think that’s the biggest thing with Mike. If Mike will just say, ‘Hey, I got this guy, it’s me, let’s go, you and me.’ I think that part will help him mature faster and be a better player quicker.”

Zimmer’s quote is fair but it can’t be overlooked that the 23-year-old Hughes remains a work in progress while being one of Zimmer’s most-veteran corners.

If Monday is any indication, it’s clear that Hill is going to get a chance to win the starting job opposite Hughes. Hill is an interesting player because he possesses plenty of talent on the field but has made questionable decisions off of it. Hill signed a three-year, $1.725 million deal with the Vikings after going undrafted out of Texas in 2018 because of character concerns. Then, last offseason, he was suspended twice by the NFL. The first was a four-game ban for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy and the second was four more for violating the substance-abuse policy.

That would have cost most undrafted guys their roster spot, but Zimmer thought enough of Hill’s ability that he kept him around. Hill ended up playing in the final eight games, starting one, and now has a chance to enter the last season of his contract with a full-time starting job.

“He’s done a good job,” Zimmer said. “He’s come back, seems to be a lot more mature this year. A lot more business-like. I told him the other day, his deal is that he has to prove he can be the same guy every day. So come out there, I don’t have to correct you on this and then next day correct you on that again. Once we get it corrected let’s move on so we can correct the next thing. He’s done a pretty good job of that so far. As it starts getting longer into camp that will be the key. Holton has great size (6-foot-2), really good athleticism, he can run, long arms and he’s a physical kid. He has all the attributes you need at corner. Hopefully he’ll continue to progress each and every day.”

If Hughes and Hill end up with the starting jobs in the base defense, the remaining question will be who gets the third spot (on the outside) when Hughes moves into the nickel position? Gladney or Dantzler, and perhaps Boyd, would be the logical candidates. Gladney has the advantage of being a first-round pick, but the Vikings also are going to be cautious with him after he had surgery before the draft to repair a torn meniscus. Gladney was held out of Friday’s opening day of practice before returning Saturday.

Zimmer said Gladney experienced a flare up in the knee. “Sometimes when those guys have surgery in the offseason in a situation like this, their rehab wasn’t as good as it could be,” Zimmer said. “He’s going to be fine, though. There’s no real issues there.”

Actually, there is an issue. The clock is ticking on getting guys ready and decisions are going to have to be made without the usual amount of information. Exactly why Dantzler’s dazzling play on Monday might count for more than usual.

“I feel good about the corners,” Zimmer said. “I’ve been watching them here for a couple weeks now, and I feel good about them. I feel like we’ve got a chance to have some good corners. We’re going to feed them as fast as we can to get them ready, but I think they’re going to go in there and do a good job. I kind of like this group. I think we’ve got some size, we’ve got some quickness, we’ve got some athletic ability. … It’s just going out there and doing it, doing what they do every day, and that’s what they’re doing now.”