MANKATO – On the third play of the Vikings preseason opener, Harrison Smith dropped down from his safety position, hugged the line and came on a blitz around the edge.
That’s one snapshot of how the Vikings intend to maximize Smith’s versatility in Mike Zimmer’s defense. In their vision, the third-year safety will handle myriad duties, from different coverage responsibilities to blitzes to run support near the line.
Nothing vanilla about his role.
“We’ve got everything that you can imagine going on right now,” he said. “Anything you can think of a safety doing.”
That’s a smart plan since Smith, as much as anyone on the Vikings defense, has a chance to excel in Zimmer’s scheme. The Vikings believe Smith can become a top-tier safety in this system because he’s smart, aggressive and he makes plays that matter.
Zimmer loves that type of player.
Smith is careful not to criticize the Tampa-2 defense or his former coaches, but it’s obvious when he talks about the changes that he’s enjoying a fresh start and different mentality in this scheme.
“I love how we are aggressive with closing space with receivers, not really just dropping into zones and giving them spots to throw the ball,” he said. “That’s just the way, in my mind, that defense is [played]. It’s aggressive, chase down the ball carrier, be physical.”
This has the potential to become an ideal marriage between a coach and his scheme and a player. Zimmer’s system allows Smith to play to his strengths. Namely, he likes to run and hit. And then hit someone again.
Smith won’t ever be accused of being passive on the field.
“I really need to get a good hold on the defense and establish myself within the defense,” he said. “I’m trying to crank it up a few more [notches].”
Smith looked like a future Pro Bowl talent as a rookie, but a turf toe injury sidelined him for eight games last season. He was the Vikings’ best defensive player at the time. The injury put his development on hold and made this season pivotal in terms of establishing himself as an elite player at his position.
The NFL is blessed with some versatile, top-shelf safeties, partly because that position has become more prominent in an era of pass-first offenses. Smith’s goal is to be mentioned along with those elite guys.
“I don’t go out there thinking, ‘Oh, I hope they write good things about me after this game,’ ” he said. “But when they talk about who are the top guys, yeah, you want to be mentioned in that. That’s the respect you get for making plays. That’s one of my goals, to be one of those guys that people talk about.”
He knows what’s required to reach that level. It comes down to making big plays, the kind you see from Earl Thomas and Jairus Byrd and Eric Berry and Kam Chancellor.
“A lot of safeties in the league are playmakers,” Smith said. “So when I’m out there, I think of myself as a playmaker. Not in a cocky way, but I’m confident that I’m going to go make plays. Everyone out there should think that way.”
Not everyone has the talent or the knack for it. Smith showed signs of being a playmaker in his first two seasons, when he grabbed five interceptions, returning two for touchdowns.
Now, he’s trying to master a new scheme that gives him an expanded role. Smith has spent time studying video of Cincinnati’s Reggie Nelson, a safety Zimmer used in a similar fashion as Bengals defensive coordinator.
Smith also stays close to veteran safety Chris Crocker in practice, hoping to gain some insight. Crocker, who signed last week, has played in Zimmer’s system the past seven seasons.
“The safeties in this defense in general can make a lot of plays,” Crocker said, “if you have an innate sense for the football and you just listen to what Zim tells you.”
Smith views this as a new starting point in his career. He doesn’t like to reflect on last season from an individual standpoint or from a team perspective. Too many bad memories.
“At the same time, I want to almost redeem that,” he said. “I want to have a lot of pride in the Vikings defense. This is the 2014 Vikings. I want this to be a very good defense.”