As a boy, Harrison Smith played running back, favored the offensive side of the ball and loved his Dallas Cowboys jersey with the No. 22 on it.
Smith wanted to be the next Emmitt Smith.
Had he known he would grow up to play free safety in Mike Zimmer’s defense, little Harry might have spent the ’90s in Darren Woodson’s No. 28 Cowboys jersey.
Woodson is revered by Zimmer, who coached the three-time All-Pro for 10 seasons in Dallas. Ask Zimmer to name the best safety he’s had in 39 years as a coach and there’s no hesitation.
“Woody,” says the Vikings coach, whose team plays at home Sunday against a Ravens team that traded the first-round pick that brought Smith to the Vikings in 2012.
Fourteen years after Woodson’s retirement, Zimmer still uses memories of the versatile five-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Fame contender as a valuable tool in his tutelage of Smith, whose blossoming career featured a Woodsonesque 1 ½ sacks and an interception in last week’s 23-10 win over the Packers.
As an example, Smith points to a goal line drill about a year ago. Smith lined up the way he wanted to, not the way Zimmer instructed. When asked to explain himself, Smith said his way made it easier for him to see the play.
“He looks at me and says, ‘Woody could do it the right way, but OK,’ and then he just walked away,” Smith says with a laugh. “It’s not a negative because if he’s bringing up Woody around me, I know he wants me to be like him.”
Smith calls the Woodson jabs “playful, but something Zim has given to me as the guy I’m always kind of chasing in this defense.” What else would you expect from a teacher who didn’t fall far from the base of the Bill Parcells coaching/needling tree?
“One thing about Harrison is you can kind of gig him a little bit,” Zimmer said. “You can say, ‘I don’t know if you can cover this guy’ or something like that. He accepts those challenges all the time, very similar to Woodson.”
Zimmer raves about Woodson’s old practice habits. How the former college linebacker studied, trained and taught himself to backpedal by taking reps at cornerback on the scout team and covering the best receivers in one-on-one drills.
A notorious hard worker himself, Smith now does some of the same things as he’s gotten to know Woodson the past three years. They had a long talk at the Pro Bowl two years ago and exchange texts regularly.
“I text him all the time,” Woodson said. “If he drops the ball, I text him and say, ‘C’mon, man. Catch the ball!’ I think the world of him. My expectation level for him is so high. It’s like a big-brother thing for me.”
Woodson was entering his third season with two Super Bowl rings when Zimmer arrived as defensive backs coach in 1994.
“He was hard-nosed even then,” Woodson said. “We’re the Super Bowl champs and I’m like, ‘Who is this guy coming in yelling and screaming?’ ”
Today, Woodson describes Zimmer as the father figure he never had. He also jokes that he’s still mad at Zimmer for not giving him some of the freedom Smith gets as part of today’s coverage and blitz packages. Of course, there weren’t as many blitz packages back then because there were fewer passes and not as many spread formations.
Woodson, like Smith, was versatile. But in a different way. Even though he was bigger, Woodson was faster. He had 4.33 speed, so Zimmer used the 6-1, 219-pounder as a nickel corner over the slot receiver in sub packages.
In 12 seasons, Woodson had 1,350 tackles, 23 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles, two touchdowns and 11 sacks. In his sixth season, the 6-2, 214-pound Smith has 542 tackles, 15 interceptions, three forced fumbles, four touchdowns and nine sacks.
There were four third-down splash plays last week that showcased Smith’s talent and versatility. Here is a look:
Third-and-5 at the Green Bay 22, 13:16 left in the first half: With four seconds left on the play clock, Smith still was disguising a two-deep look 9 yards from the line of scrimmage. But he crept forward just far enough to race through a hole on the left side of the defense. He shared a sack with Brian Robison.
“Harrison’s got a little bit of a burglar to him,” Zimmer said of the deception on this play. “He has a feel for the game, for the cadence. Just a very, very instinctive guy.”
Third-and-7 at the Green Bay 28, 6:28 left in the half: The Vikings were about to overload the blind side with four defenders. Again, Smith read the situation, staying about 7 yards deep until he sneaked toward the line and blitzed to the outside of right end Danielle Hunter. The body lean and speed Smith used to turn the corner for the sack showcased the work he’s done in the offseason with defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
“I ran 4.5s at the combine, but I like to think I can run how I need to,” Smith said. “If I need to get somewhere, I’m going to get there.”
Third-and-2 at the Green Bay 45, 12:27 left in the game: Smith was 3 yards from the line of scrimmage. His assignment was to cover the running back man to man. When the running back stayed in to block, Smith immediately dropped to his right to help defend a crossing route he anticipated was coming. The ball was fired his way. He dived, stuck out his right arm to stop the ball and cradled it before it hit the ground.
“That pick was sweet,” said cornerback Terence Newman. “That’s probably the best pick I’ve seen live ever.”
Smith calls his third pick in four games “probably my best catch ever, but the [19-yard] return could have been better.”
Third-and-4 at the Green Bay 33, 9:28 left in the game: Brett Hundley left the pocket, creating a scramble drill for his downfield targets. Hundley made a nice throw to Jordy Nelson up the right sideline. Nelson wrapped his hands around the ball only to have Smith rip it free for an incompletion.
“I was chasing him and when I saw his eyes get big, I knew the ball was coming and I knew I couldn’t interfere with him,” Smith said. “I was trying to let him catch it and then I’d grab it out of his hands. But my top hand slipped off, so I just kind of tried to spin it free.”
Smith stopped well short of calling last Sunday the best game of his career. Asked where it ranked on Zimmer’s “Woodson meter,” Smith laughed.
“He didn’t give me the Woodson checkoff, I guess, but I think it was a step in the right direction,” Smith said. “Kind of that versatility thing he’s looking for.”
For now, Zimmer’s tough love will only allow for the two-time Pro Bowl player to rank “right up there” with the best safeties he’s coached. He also acknowledges that Smith does have Woodson’s competitiveness and defensive instincts, even if he does still cling to Emmitt’s old number.
As far as moving past Woodson, well, Zimmer will leave that for others to decide should Smith have a long career.
“I think the career longevity is important,” Zimmer said. “Plus, when Woody was in Dallas, he won three Super Bowls. Those kinds of things add to your mystique. But people see Harrison as a playmaker. If he keeps it up, things will take care of themselves.”