When it comes to former UConn standout Shamar Stephen, the MinnesotaVikings didn’t know a good thing until it was gone.
Stephen is returning to where his NFL career began. The defensive tackle is back with the Vikings after a year in Seattle, hoping to reignite the fire on a once mutually successful marriage.
Stephen, drafted by Minnesota in 2014 in the seventh round, signed a three-year $12.45 million contract with the Vikings this offseason. Stephen worked his way into a starting role under head coach Mike Zimmer, becoming a key cog on the defensive line for the No. 1 defense in the NFL in 2017, helping the Vikings to a NFC Championship Game appearance.
But Minnesota, with hopes of once again competing for a Super Bowl, opted for a sexier name last offseason, signing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, letting Stephen test the free agent market. The Vikings defense took a step back with Stephen gone, no fault of Richardson’s, and the price tag was too expensive for the Vikings to keep their newly acquired arm candy for another season. So with Richardson signing with the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota called its ex, hoping Stephen would pick up the phone.
“I grew up in this system—I love being in this system,” Stephen said. “I’ve been in it for four or five years, I know it well. Minnesota is known for its great defenses so it was a good place to come back to.”
Now in 2019, Stephen and the Vikings are going for round two. With Stephen, Zimmer, defensive coordinator George Edwards and defensive line coach Andre Patterson the band is back together, searching for that spark that made them so dominate just over a year ago.
“Our focus in every game, every practice is to win that day—focus on the details and don’t worry about the big picture,” said Stephen. “We need to focus on what we can control, doing our job and we can be the best.”
While Zimmer is lauded for his defensive acumen, it’s the relationship with Patterson that has helped Stephen blossom from a fringe roster player to a starter on one of the best units in the league.
“If you just grab a stat sheet and look at tackles and sacks you say that [Stephen] didn’t play well,” Patterson told Vikings.com. “But if you go in as a coach and you watch what that position is supposed to do, this guy is one of the best in the league at doing his job.”
On a defensive line including perennial Pro Bowlers Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter the former Huskies’ name isn’t the most glamorous. As Patterson mentioned, statistically Stephen’s numbers won’t jump off the page. According to Pro Football Focus, Stephen had an overall grade of 57.9 in 2018 with the Seahawks. Back in 2017 when he anchored the interior of the Vikings’ defense, Stephen earned a 67.9 grade from PFF which translates to an above-average player. He also received a 70.7 run defense grade in 2017 when the Vikings boasted the No. 2 rush defense in the NFL. Minnesota is certainly hoping its reunion with the former Husky can sure up the run defense as it dropped to No. 15 last season without Stephen.
“He was a big reason why we had the No. 1 defense in the league that year before,” Patterson told to Vikings.com. “Because what Shamar does makes Anthony Barr better. He makes Eric Kendricks better. He makes Linval Joseph better, because he’s going to play with great technique, and he frees up those guys.”
As Connecticut transitions from the American Athletic Conference to an uncertain football future, Huskies hoping to make it to the NFL will be wise emulate Stephen’s career projection. Find a way onto to roster via the draft of free agency, buy into the system and work hard to carve out a role.
“I would tell those guys to win the day, do your job at a high level,” he said. “Keep fine tuning your game. Playing ball is all about being consistent everyday.”
Stephen says he has kept an eye on the changing times at Storrs. Stephen collegiate days were a time when the Huskies with players like himself, Byron Jones, Obi Melifonwu, Julian Campenni and Foley Fatukasi were married to great defense. After a 2018 campaign in which UConn allowed an FBS record in points, clearly that relationship is on the rocks. But according to Stephen, things aren’t too far gone that it can’t be repaired.
“Defense has always been big at UConn, we always played defense well. But I think we are headed on the right track,” Stephen said.