Sid Hartman
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Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes struggled through his rookie season in 2015 after being selected No. 11 overall out of Michigan State, appearing sparingly in 15 games and recording 30 tackles.

Last year he started to show some signs of improvement as he again appeared in 15 games but started eight, had 50 tackles and four interceptions and tied for the team lead with 11 pass deflections.

At the start of this season, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he had high expectations for Waynes, and that it might have been part of the reason he struggled early on.

“I think he’s handled it really well,” Zimmer said. “I think this will be a big year for him, hopefully he comes in and he plays great. That’s what we’re expecting.”

So far that has been true. Waynes has started every game at cornerback along with Xavier Rhodes, and they have become one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL.

Waynes is fourth on the team in tackles at 42, leads the team in pass deflections with eight and is second with two interceptions.

In their most recent victory against Cleveland on Oct. 29 in London, Pro Football Focus noted Waynes was a standout against the pass, and also that he has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league against the run.

“His physical presence in coverage was key for the Vikings secondary,” they wrote. “Targeted seven times in coverage, he allowed just two receptions for 22 yards, breaking one pass up, and forcing another incompletion with heavy contact.”

Yes, Waynes appears to be coming into his own. He said that one of the best parts about being on this Vikings squad is that he has had a number of players help him improve his game.

Terence Newman is someone who has always been there coaching me,” Waynes said of the 15-year veteran cornerback, at 39 one of the oldest players in the league. “I’ve always said he’s someone who I actually feel like is a coach on the field. Me and him always get together for extra days to watch film and stuff like that. I think he has been a big part of me helping me learn the system.

“I feel like the DB core as a unit, they do a good job helping each other out.”

Standout prospect

Waynes was a multisport star in high school at Kenosha (Wis.) Tremper, running track and playing baseball along with football.

But he said he didn’t move to cornerback until late in his prep career.

“My freshman and sophomore year, I played like this outside linebacker-type thing. Then my junior year I played safety and got injured midway through the season,” he said. “When I came back, they moved me to cornerback for the playoffs. I played corner going into my senior year.”

Brad Salem, an assistant coach at Michigan State and the son of former Gophers coach Joe Salem, saw the potential in Waynes.

“He recruited me at Michigan State, and he was a great part of my life,” Waynes said. “He gave me an opportunity and enabled me to showcase my talent at Michigan State and helped me get that offer.”

As a sophomore, Waynes helped Michigan State to a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory during the 2013 season. He was named a second team All-America selection in 2014 before leaving school as a junior.

He said that there was an adjustment period when he got to the NFL, even if he was such a high pick.

“The schemes are a big part, and then just the rules,” Waynes said. “You’re not allowed to get away with being as handsy as you are in college, and that’s a big part that you have to adjust to.”

Waynes added that teams have targeted him since he got to the pros.

“I mean obviously in this league, they’re going to target you until you prove yourself, I’m just like anybody else,” he said. “Just keep working on technique and working on getting better every day.”

When it comes to preparing for his third NFL season, Waynes said he spent the offseason training with older teammates who he knew would “push me harder than I push myself.”

And now he is finally starting to show the kind of talent that made him such a high pick. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity,” he said. “And trying to do my best to fit in with this defense.”

Recruiting no concern

Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck was asked if having a losing record will cause other coaches to try and recruit players who have verbally committed to the Gophers, who are 4-5 after being walloped 33-10 at Michigan last Saturday.

“I don’t think it hurts one bit. If anything it makes it better for the opportunity to come in and compete and play and be part of something special that you get to turnaround and make a champion forever,” Fleck said. “I think that’s really special for a lot of young people to be a part of. You want to be a part of something legendary. You want to be a part of something that hasn’t been done in half a century. That is really neat. I think young people, the right people will be here. If it is challenging and it is hard, that means it is worth it.”

Fleck said that even though the team had nine victories last season, he has maintained all along there was a chance the group could struggle this year.

“I have said that for a long time, I kept talking about the youth and inexperience and people can ignore that, but I’m very real and open and honest about what we were supposed to be,” he said. “Everyone talks about our expectations, and I think we were picked 11th out of 14 in the Big Ten. Coming off a nine-win season, you wouldn’t think that you would be picked 11th out of 14 in the Big Ten.

“But it’s the lack of experience and the lack of depth we have. The future is incredibly bright. Right now we just have to go through a few growing pains with the new culture and a lot of people playing that are gaining valuable experience.”

The Gophers had a number of injuries last weekend. Specifically, regarding safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who has been sidelined by a hamstring injury, Fleck said: “He is our best player on defense, one of our best players, of course it [hurts]. Any time you lose some of your best players — and we’ve played without some of our best players in the secondary all year — it is what it is.

“There are young people that are getting a lot of experience for the future, and that is really helping us grow and provide depth for the future years.”

When it comes to quarterback Demry Croft, Fleck still believes the sophomore is getting better with each start.

“All I do, take it in week increments,” Fleck said. “‘How did you get better this week than you were last week? What did you do that we can improve on?’ That is all we’re going to keep doing.”

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.