EAGAN, Minn. — Jayron Kearse’s massive 6-foot-5 frame is both a blessing and a curse. Especially when he has to come down from his usual spot at safety and step up as the third cornerback on the field.
It’s a wrinkle that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has implemented over the past couple of seasons — mostly out of necessity — and Kearse has certainly shown flashes of brilliance as the nickel back.
His biggest problem pops up when he is forced to match up against an opponent’s slot receiver.
“Just being a taller guy, it’s tough getting in and out of breaks with some of those shifty guys,” Kearse said. “It’s comes down to center of gravity. I’m a little bit taller so it’s more difficult for me. It’s something I’ve been working on, my lateral movement, knowing that I was going to be in this role.”
All that preparation could be put to the test as soon as this weekend if starting nickel back Mackensie Alexander misses any time with the elbow he dislocated during Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. The Vikings are still awaiting the MRI results to determine the length of his absence.
How would Kearse feel about filling in long term?
“I’m very confident,” Kearse said. “I feel like I can go out there and make plays and cover anybody. It’s just about me having the opportunity. I’m probably going to have a little bit more on my plate now. I’ve got to be ready for it.”
Taken by the Vikings in the seventh round of the 2016 draft, Kearse, 25, has gone from special teams ace to rotational player over the past few seasons, emerging as a Swiss Army knife kind of athlete who can play all over the field.
“It feels real good just being out there with my guys making plays,” he said. “I think I’ve grown a lot since I’ve been here. Things have been going good. I’m just trying to keep it going.”
Filling in during Sunday’s game, Kearse used his length to overwhelm opponents in pass coverage, and used his size to make an impact in run support.
“He’s a big guy and is very physical, so that kind of gives us that balance,” safety Anthony Harris said. “He can be physical with the receivers when he’s out in coverage. He can also help in those run packages as well.”
Maybe the most important thing, according to Kearse, is that he actually feels comfortable now when he’s called upon. He no longer has to think about his assignments when he’s out there.
“If I’m doing too much thinking, I’m not really focused on what’s going on around me,” he said. “Just knowing what I have to do and knowing my job makes it easier.”
Looking ahead to Sunday’s game in Green Bay, Zimmer hopes Kearse can continue to use his length to his advantage, though he doesn’t plan to put him alone on an island too often.
“Not very often is he going to be by himself on a guy,” Zimmer said. “He’s going to get help from either the inside or the outside or whatever it is. I think understanding leverage is the (most important) part about that. Just knowing where his help is.”
If he does get matched up on a slot receiver, though, Kearse is confident he will be able to hold his own.
“You’ve got the unique guys like Cole Beasley or something that are real shifty,” Kearse said. “You go against those smaller guys and it becomes a lot more difficult to keep up. Over there (with the Packers), they don’t really have those smaller guys like that. It shouldn’t be too big of a challenge for me. I’m just looking forward to it, and I’m ready to get to it.”