With every catch made and tackler avoided, buzz increased around tight end Irv Smith Jr. during Vikings training camp last season.
Smith appeared to put a bow on a promising offseason in the preseason finale at Kansas City. He played just 11 snaps. They featured a shallow crosser he turned into a 23-yard gain, another short toss for a 16-yard catch and run, and a run block resulting in the meniscus injury that ended his bid for a breakout campaign before it even started.
"I just felt like my knee kind of buckled a little bit," Smith recalled Tuesday during his first news conference since the injury, "and I really didn't think it was nothing too serious, but it was."
An MRI soon revealed the extent of Smith's injury. Now nearly eight months after his meniscus was repaired by Vikings physician Dr. Christopher Larson, the team wants to get the hype train going again – but slowly. Smith warmed up with Vikings tight ends during Tuesday's workouts. He then stayed with an athletic trainer off to the side as pass catchers rallied around quarterback Kirk Cousins to run routes.
Head coach Kevin O'Connell said the team wants to have Smith fully healthy by training camp, using a nine-week offseason program as a ramp-up period to that end. His football focus is currently limited to learning O'Connell's playbook.
"We're not going to push him this early on in the offseason until we get the green light from the docs," O'Connell said. "What I've challenged him to do is stressing him above the neck – making sure he's learning the system so he's gonna know what to do, where to line up."
Smith, who turns 24 in August, was just 20 years old when he was drafted in the second round out of Alabama. He was the youngest player selected within the 2019 draft's first couple rounds. After flashing potential as a backup to Kyle Rudolph for two years, he was expected to make a leap as a starter in 2021. He was sent down a different path with a "challenging" rehab.
"It's crazy. That's kind of life, though," Smith said. "Things get thrown at you that you don't expect. But it's about how you bounce back, your mentality. You can't be down in those situations. You got to pick yourself up, your family is there for you, my team was there for me. They believe in me, so that's all I can ask for."
Smith was drafted high by the previous regime because of his talents as a receiver and blocker, which O'Connell sees as a "perfect skill set" for the new Vikings offense.
"As far as the verbiage and the terms, all that will be new," O'Connell said. "But in a lot of ways when a guy does things well, you can translate it to really any system, whether it's being a vertical threat down the field, having a role in the run game. All the different ways we marry the run and the pass, I think Irv has a perfect skill set to have a big role in that."
Smith's first three NFL seasons were spent in a Gary Kubiak playbook that often featured him as an underneath target set up on play-action passes. The previous coaching staff wanted to get him more involved on third down last year, and Smith's injury opened the door for receiver K.J. Osborn to do that instead.
"I had a great camp and was looking forward to the season, but that momentum and everything hasn't slowed down," Smith said. "I'm very confident once I get back on the field I'm going to be 100 percent and we're going to keep building on that."
Once Smith gets clearance from Vikings trainers, he could be flying downfield more; O'Connell said he sees Smith as a "vertical threat" among other roles. But the team is not going to rush the hype train out of the station.
"Going back and watching him, I know he was feeling really good before the injury," O'Connell said. "It was obviously a shame he didn't get to see all that hard work come to fruition in the season. But that's what we're trying to help him do now. Get him right back to where he was, if not better, if not stronger. Then obviously it's about the scheme and Irv taking it from there."