Commanders CB Benjamin St-Juste slides to slot for Year 2

It was late in the morning of a Washington Commanders minicamp practice when, during a first-step drill, second-year cornerback Benjamin St-Juste lost his man.

Maybe it was the heat, his relative inexperience or just a bad break, but when the play started and the wide receiver he was guarding did a stutter step, St-Juste went one way, the receiver another.

Defensive backs coach Chris Harris stopped the play, walked to St-Juste and pointed right where the receiver had been standing.

“When he stutters, it’s a pick,” Harris barked. “You need to be ready for that.”

As he strives to lock down his role within the team, those are mistakes St-Juste knows he can’t afford to make.

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Selected in the third round of last year’s draft, St-Juste had an up-and-down rookie season in Washington. Playing exclusively on the outside, the 24-year-old from Montreal appeared in nine games, missing time with two concussions. Even when he was out there, he wasn’t always turning heads, totaling 26 tackles — one for a loss — and three pass breakups.

As the Commanders prepare to open training camp next week, both St-Juste and Washington coaches are counting on more of an impact in Year 2. The Commanders already have starting outside options in Kendall Fuller and William Jackson III, so this offseason coaches slid their second-year cornerback into the slot — a position he has never played.

“I’m embracing that role,” St-Juste said. “As long as I can be out there and helping the defense and playing, you can put me pretty much anywhere, and I’ll learn that position and excel at it.”

St-Juste doesn’t look like your typical nickel cornerback. At 6-foot-3 and just over 200 pounds, he’ll be taller than most slot receivers he’ll be covering. With that kind of size, lateral quickness and agility aren’t always a given.

Ask Harris, though, and he sees that length as just another benefit to the quick twitch skill and speed St-Juste already possesses. He pointed out St-Juste’s performance at the scouting combine, where he posted a time of 6.63 seconds on the three-cone drill — faster than any other defensive back there.

“You have to have that type of skill set to be able to play inside,” Harris said. “If you’ve got that length, that’s an added bonus, which he does have.”

St-Juste will continue working in the slot during training camp, but Harris said he has “picked it up a lot faster than I anticipated.”

“That gives him an opportunity to get out on the field and contribute,” he said.

Coach Ron Rivera also had praise for St-Juste, saying, “It’s good to see him back and doing the things he’s capable of doing.”

Granted, he’s getting a lot of help learning his new spot. In between drills at minicamp, Harris and St-Juste were constantly in conversation — aside from the discussion after the missteps, Harris was also working with St-Juste on his technique.

“If you don’t have a coach like that, that’s trying to help you anticipate those plays and trying to teach you the game … then he’s cheating you,” St-Juste said.

St-Juste was also working closely with assistant defensive backs and nickel coach Brent Vieselmeyer on the sideline, focusing on St-Juste’s movement and positioning on each play. In a new role where St-Juste interacts more with linemen and linebackers and also has more responsibilities against the run — “like a mini-middle linebacker out there,” as St-Juste called it — Vieselmeyer’s aid has been critical.

Vieselmeyer has experience working closely with backs, including stints as the assistant linebackers coach and safeties coach for the Oakland Raiders from 2015 to 2017. “He’s done this before,” defensive line coach Sam Mills III said. “He’s taken a young guy and taught him the game and the particulars of the game. … [St-Juste] basically has a one-on-one tutor.”

And to hear the Washington coaches tell it, that tutoring is resonating with St-Juste, both in the film room and on the practice field. Harris called St-Juste “a sponge.”

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That’s why, when Harris called him out for botching his coverage at minicamp, St-Juste listened intently. They ran the play again, and he got it right.

“It’s a learning process,” he said. “… Once you make a mistake in practice, you make sure it never happens the next day.”

The team seems confident that St-Juste isn’t at risk for reinjury. As a rookie, he took a hard hit during a Week 3 loss to the Buffalo Bills, and though he returned to the game, he later entered the concussion protocol and missed Week 4. His second concussion came during a midweek practice before a Week 10 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He missed that game but saw time in Weeks 11 and 12 before the team placed him on injured reserve Dec. 3, effectively ending his season.

More than six months later, Harris said, St-Juste is a “full-go” for the upcoming season. St-Juste is taking added precautions this year, trying to play less with his head and switching back to a helmet he used in college at Minnesota — a Riddell Speedflex specially designed and molded for him.

St-Juste may not have turned heads in his rookie season, but Harris acknowledged he was still raw. With a year’s worth of experience under his belt, St-Juste said he feels comfortable with the chemistry he and his defensive teammates share, as well as his increased understanding of the defense.

It’s still early and St-Juste has a lot to learn, but he believes he’s headed in the right direction.

“I have personal goals, and I have team goals,” St-Juste said. “I want to achieve those this year.”

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