There’s a player on the roster with Hall of Fame bloodlines and has experience quarterbacking his team to a national championship. But with the Vikings, he’s not throwing passes; he’s stopping them.
Maybe it would have been nice to see what the athletic phenom for Illinois State could have done at quarterback with Taylor Heinicke injured and the other backups struggling, but for now the position he seems to be excelling at is one he hasn’t played since elementary school: cornerback.
Tre Roberson is handling the move well. When asked, Mike Zimmer said that Roberson has been handling the transition “Really amazingly.”
“He does some things that are very natural for a guy that has never played corner before,” Zimmer said. “Just watching him back pedal and break. He’s still got tons to learn. As far as athletically, when you are used to playing quarterback and now you are backpedaling and trying to learn defensive schemes and coverages—I think he has done really good.”
Earning that kind of praise from an exacting defensive back’s coach is pretty significant, and Roberson has been making good on that praise in the last four days of camp. With at least seven pass deflections over four days of work—with and without pads—Roberson seems to be doing a good job of closing on the ball and preventing completions. Hill and Stave don’t seem particularly willing to target him, either.
For him, however, it’s more about figuring out how to improve more than highlighting a few plays. “I still think I have a lot of things to work on,” he told me. “I’m still learning the position; I don’t think I’ve really done that good yet… I’m still trying to learn this, still trying to make it.”
What he seems to lack in technical and schematic knowledge, he certainly seems to be making up for in athletic ability and the rare advantage of playing quarterback at a high level. When asked if being a quarterback has helped him, he said, “I’m always looking at certain situations and put myself in those situations; trying to reverse roles and see what I would like to throw in that situation. I like to use that to my advantage.”
And that experience comes with national championship-caliber play. As a quarterback of the Illinois State Redbirds, he led a roaring comeback with 1:38 left in the game against the incumbent champions, North Dakota State, before Carson Wentz sealed the game with 37 seconds remaining.
Roberson finished with 157 yards through the air on 23 attempts, with three passing touchdowns and on interception—in addition to the 161 yards on the ground and rushing score he added to the total.
That Illinois State connection might have been useful, too. “It’s exciting [to be in Minnesota] because [Mike Zimmer] is an Illinois State alum and I went to Illinois State,” he told Daniel House of Vikings Corner.
It’s been a difficult transition and in order to help himself, he’s been using film from some all-time greats to help him out: Darrelle Revis and his grandfather, Larry Highbaugh—a Canadian Football League Hall of Fame two-way player for the Edmonton Eskimos.
There are also contemporaries he learns from. He’s been quick to mention Terence Newman in interviews as a player who has helped guide his development, and also mentioned both Captain Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes.
Roberson has also been effusive about the defensive back coaches. “Coach [Jerry] Gray is a great coach, Johnny, [Gannon] all those guys, they’re always helping out,” he said. “They always try to find the little things to try and help you out. And they’re true teachers, they really try to teach you the game.”
He’s got long odds to make the roster. With Newman, Munnerlyn and Rhodes are recent draft picks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Marcus Sherels, one of the league’s best punt returners, also has a great shot of making the roster and pushing the cornerback corps to six deep.
Roberson has embraced the role of a longshot. When asked about those slim odds, he said, “It’s all in God’s hands. Just go out there and work your tail off every single day. Try not to make the same mistakes twice and try to think ahead of the game.”
He’ll have to push, because he’s a moonshot—he wasn’t even offered an undrafted free agent contract from any team, instead trying out with just two: the Vikings and the Chargers. Working out in the offseason as a quarterback, receiver and defensive back, he didn’t know which position the Vikings were inviting him to camp to evaluate him at.
As he told House, “I’ve never been a player that has really been an underdog and counted out. Now I’m in that situation, so I’m just going to push harder and show people what I’ve got.”
So far, what he’s got seems to be quite a lot.