When Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith was drafted in the first round by the Vikings earlier this year, Tim Irwin predicted big things for him in the NFL.
And now Irwin, a former outstanding Vikings tackle from 1981 to '93 who coached Smith as a youngster, has watched him perform as a pro and describes him as an even better athlete than former teammate Joey Browner, a six-time Pro Bowl player.
"Joey Browner [was a] big hitter, yes sir," Irwin said. "I think [Smith is] better in coverage than Joey was. Well, he's younger! He's doing it now. Joey did it 20 years ago, but he's a little faster than Joey. Joey was a big, physical, more of a strong safety type. Harrison can cover the field better in space."
Irwin coached Smith in eighth grade in Knoxville, Tenn.
"He had a tremendous amount of talent," Irwin said at the time of the draft. "I'll tell you something about that kid, he has a work ethic that is unbelievable. He flat out made himself into what he is. He has a lot of talent and comes from a real good home, but he worked his butt off for a lot of years and he's come a long way.
"A real good athlete, maybe the best I ever saw at the age I had him. Definitely the best I ever coached, and I coached a whole lot of kids. He was unstoppable. He was a great high school player. The only mistake he made in his life was going to Notre Dame instead of the University of Tennessee [where Irwin played]."
Now that Irwin has watched Smith perform on television with the Vikings, he believes Smith should be named NFL rookie of the year.
"I like his athleticism, his toughness, his intensity and his intelligence," Irwin said. "I think he's just exactly what the Vikings needed at that position. I'm very proud of him.
"I think he's better in coverage than I thought he was going to be. I thought he would be up at the line more as a mugger type of guy, but he is doing better in coverage than I anticipated. I know he's a big hitter when he gets the opportunity, but I think he's handling his responsibilities in the coverage better than I thought."
Irwin is confident Smith is going to be one of the great safeties in the NFL. And if the Vikings want to take even more advantage of Smith's speed, Irwin said they could play him at running back, where he played in his younger days.
"They ought to give him the ball on offense, when Percy [Harvin] is down," Irwin said. "They want some speed, give him the ball. He can run."
Gophers more healthy
Gophers football coach Jerry Kill said that one plus for the team in Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas Tech is that many of the starters are healthy again after sitting out parts of the season.
"I think the great thing up front is that our strongest group up front will be healthy," Kill said. "That will be with Jon Christenson at center and Zac Epping at guard. We get [tackle] Eddie Olson back. Up front we'll be as healthy as we've been, when we thought we were playing really well.
"Our tight ends will be healthy for some of the things we do, with Drew Goodger and John Rabe, along with [fullback] Michael Henry. I think offensively we certainly helped ourselves healthwise."
Kill described Texas Tech as a wide-open football team, one that isn't similar to any team in the Big Ten.
"Their team is going to ... spread it out," he said. "They're going to set their run up by throwing it. They have great, big receivers on the edges and a quarterback that is very efficient. An offensive team similar to Syracuse, except I think even a little bit better skilled than Syracuse, and they're better up front.
"Defensively they're going to be a 4-2-5 defense. They've got big guys up front and then they're very skilled on the back end. They have to defend the pass all the time in practice, so they're very good at that."
The Gophers are 13-point underdogs against the Red Raiders, according to most Las Vegas oddsmakers.
Vikings-Packers ticket demand
The demand for tickets to the Vikings-Packers game Sunday is stronger than it has been since the Brett Favre days.
In favor of the Vikings is that fewer tickets have been sold to Packers fans than in recent meetings, so some 90 percent of the crowd at Mall of America Field could be Vikings fans. The Packers are 3 1/2-point favorites.
Another thing in the Vikings' favor is that the Packers have lost their top running backs because of injuries. Cedric Benson (foot) is out for the year, James Starks (knee) is out until the playoffs and Alex Green has been bothered by concussion symptoms.
Ryan Grant rushed 20 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns and had one reception for 34 yards Sunday in a 55-7 victory over the Titans, and DuJuan Harris had eight carries for 29 yards.
The Packers concentrate on the passing game, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He has thrown 80 touchdown passes in the past two seasons (45 in 2011, 35 this season), which surpassed Favre's best two-year mark of 77, set in 1995-1996.
• Wolves owner Glen Taylor, speaking for the first time about recent negative comments made by All-Star forward Kevin Love about the organization: "Well, you know, I decided not to make any comments about it [at the time]. I just think Kevin is going through a very frustrating year so far this year, compared to last year when he played so well. I think that sometimes he just gets uptight and frustrated about the whole thing and, as a young person, probably said some things that if he had thought about it more he might not have said. I understand young people and sometimes they do things that if, given more time to think about it, they probably wouldn't have done."
• Rice will face Air Force in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Saturday. On Rice's roster will be the sons of Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and Texans coach Gary Kubiak. Klein Kubiak is a junior wide receiver. Corey Frazier is a senior safety who has been injured and will miss the bowl game.
• Former Bloomington Jefferson standout Cole Aldrich is having some nice production in limited minutes for the Houston Rockets this season. Aldrich is averaging 2.1 points and 2.1 rebounds in 7.2 minutes per game.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org