EAGAN, Minn. — Lewis Cine sat down on a cement railing and tugged at his golden braids. The second training camp practice of his second NFL season had just wrapped up, and he was talking like a guy who would prefer his play to do the talking for him.
“I didn’t do anything last year,” he said defiantly. “Yes, I do have things to prove.”
To the organization? Yes, Cine said.
To the Vikings coaches? Yes to that, too.
To himself? Yep.
He grabbed at his braids once more, twisting, turning, thinking. After several silent seconds, I asked him why he so steadfastly felt this way. The 2022 first-round pick gave himself some grace, admitting that the compound fracture of his left leg last season in London upended his and the team’s plan for him. Then he returned to his present motivation.
“Being realistic, yes, I did things in college,” the 23-year-old said. “But now, I’m in the league.”
He’s right, but it also feels right to drift back in time. To when he wore No. 16 in black and red for Georgia. When Dane Brugler, The Athletic’s draft expert, called Cine “an ascending talent.”
Flip on the Georgia film, and he’s impossible to miss. Cine hurtles toward lumbering running backs and takes them down with force. He scans the line of scrimmage, watches the opponent attempt a trick play, then recovers deep to swat the ball away from a receiver. He sprints downhill, wraps up tacklers and stands over them with swagger.
It is those skills — and more — that attracted the Vikings.
The 32nd pick showed up last summer, participated in training camp, then barely played any defensive snaps for the first three games of the year. What was wrong? Was he struggling in practice? Was he having trouble learning Ed Donatell’s scheme? Asked these questions Thursday, Cine did not mince words.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat or lie to anyone,” Cine said. “I was still learning the defense last year.”
Georgia consistently ranks as one of the best defenses in college football for a reason. The Bulldogs utilize multiple simulated pressures, meaning they rush four players from various spots. That’s not easy to learn for any defender. The difference with Donatell’s scheme, Cine said, was the overall size of the playbook. Cine shouldered the responsibility, suggesting it was “on me to key in, lock in and study — to go to the people I need to go to for help.”
At the time, though, he hadn’t mastered the wide-ranging responsibilities the system asked of him. For that reason, Cine said, the coaches weren’t ready to thrust him into action.
“They’re not just going to throw me in the fire and have me not be comfortable,” Cine said.
The idea, then, was for him to play on special teams. To fly down the field. To aggressively hit return men. To get used to the physicality of the NFL.
“It was, like, ‘Once you feel like you’re picking (the defense) up, great, we’ll work you in,’” Cine said.
Week 4 altered that plan. Racing down the field at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium against the Saints, Cine stumbled awkwardly. The compound fracture, which required him to remain at a hospital in London as the team returned to the United States, ended his season. It also complicated the route to living up to his expectations.
Between rehab sessions, Cine spent time with his daughter, Bella. In a matter of months, Bella’s father went from needing a surgeon to piece his leg back together to running sprints inside the TCO Performance Center.
This time around, learning Brian Flores’ defense, Cine buried himself in the minutiae.
“It’s on me to key in, lock in and study,” Cine said, “and to go to the people I need to go to for help.”
Inside the defensive backs room, Cine sits next to Josh Metellus, whom Cine said “is very good in terms of the mental aspect of the playbook.” Cine asks him questions. Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum also serve as sounding boards. And, to this point, Cine seems clued into his tasks.
Thursday, for example, the Vikings defensive backs practiced against stack formations. Pre-snap, the cornerbacks and safeties communicated about which receivers they’d match up with. They even discussed how that communication would have to change when another receiver motioned to the side of the stack.
Later on in the practice, in a seven-on-seven rep, Cine drifted back into a deep safety position, observed a checkdown and beelined toward the ball carrier. He reacted so quickly that cornerback Mekhi Blackmon hollered: “Great s—, Lew!”
Cine also admitted that Flores’ defense suits his tendencies.
“It takes a lot of the thinking out of it and lets you go be a football player,” Cine said.
There will still be physical challenges — like there are for any player returning from such a gruesome injury. And there will be challenges involving the depth chart. Thus far, Cine has taken limited reps with what looks to be the No. 1 defense. He could talk about that, but he thinks his play is what matters.
As he tugged on his golden braids once more, I asked him if there was anything else we should know. About where he is, where he’s been or where he wants to go. He thought for a moment, then talked about the talk.
“I’m not into all of it,” he said. “I’m not going to say I’ll do this or that. I’ll let the actions speak for itself. I’ve always been an action-oriented guy. I’ll let the actions prove what they need to prove. That’s it.”
• We’ve already written about rookie quarterback Jaren Hall in this space a couple of times. Hall earned a few reps Wednesday.
Twice Thursday, he placed the ball beautifully. The first rep featured Hall from the pocket. He scanned the field, saw wide receiver Lucky Jackson crossing the field to his right and feathered a ball over the defender and into Jackson’s outstretched hands. The second rep also began with Hall in the pocket. He recognized one-on-one coverage down the left sideline and fired a back-shoulder ball to Thayer Thomas that was secured.
Not all has been positive, however. On a bootleg, Hall flipped a pass that was almost picked off by fourth-round rookie Jay Ward. Still, Hall’s overall accuracy and command have been solid.
• The Vikings raved about third-round pick Mekhi Blackmon after the draft. He earned some snaps with the first team this spring and displayed lots of tenacity.
That quality was evident again Thursday on an attempt down the right sideline. Blackmon glued himself to wide receiver Trishton Jackson, who beat him by a half-step. The ball was thrown well, but Blackmon recovered quickly and broke up the pass.
To this point, cornerbacks Akalyeb Evans, Byron Murphy Jr. and Joejuan Williams have played with the No. 1s in the nickel package, but keep your eyes on Blackmon as camp progresses.
• Offensive coordinator Wes Phillips hinted Thursday at some potential three-tight-end personnel groupings this season. And although newly signed behemoth Josh Oliver would not wade into that possibility, Phillips did say this: “We’ve got a lot of guys, a lot of talent, and there a lot of different things they can do with us.”
As an aside, Oliver, who arrived by way of Baltimore, raved about the Vikings’ tight end room, saying: “T.J. (Hockenson) is a proven Pro Bowler; Johnny (Mundt) is a vet in the league. Putting us all together? I think it’s going to be a scary sight.”
(Photo: Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
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