Harrison Smith has already made a name for himself as the best safety in the NFL and is one of the greatest safeties to ever play for the Vikings.
His stats speak for themselves. He is one of two current players in the NFL, along with Dolphins two-time Pro Bowler Reshad Jones, with over 600 careers tackles, 20 career interceptions and 10 career sacks. Only 28 NFL players have accomplished those career numbers.
But Smith’s ninth season with the Vikings will bring his biggest challenge.
The five-time Pro Bowler said at the start of training camp that he is ready to lead a young group of defensive backs. Those players couldn’t have a better veteran as a mentor.
“We have a lot of guys who have played for a while together, and have had a lot of success and have been through ups and downs,” Smith said. “Then we have a lot of guys who are new, who have clean slates, but a ton of talent and smart guys, smart coaches, a lot of people who want to win and who want to be great football players and a great defense. I think it’s good to have that mix.
“It’s good to have some new faces every now and then. It kind of keeps us old guys … [in trying] to teach a little bit more, you realize areas that you need to get better at. I think everyone is hungry and that’s what it’s about, just getting 11 guys on the field that want to chase the ball and have success and have success for one another.”
The Vikings will have Smith and Anthony Harris playing side by side in the defensive backfield, and that’s maybe the biggest reason the front office and coaching staff felt comfortable bringing in or drafting several young cornerbacks and a new coach in Daronte Jones.
Pro Football Focus ranked Smith and Harris as the best safety tandem in the NFL, and it’s not even close.
Smith said bringing back Harris with the franchise tag was the right move because Harris’ presence can lift the whole defense.
“It’s a guy that can multiply and make the guys around him better, especially because it’s no secret that we have a young room,” Smith said. “If you keep one of the best safeties in the league on your team, then it will help.”
Still proving himself
The Vikings could potentially start rookie Jeff Gladney at one corner and third-year corner Mike Hughes on the other side.
They will also feature rookie safeties Brian Cole II and Josh Metellus, rookie corners Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand, third-year corner Holton Hill and second-year corner Nate Meadors.
Smith said working with that group is exciting, because it gives him a chance to think about some of the fundamental things he needs to be working on as well.
“We say we have proven players, you have to prove yourself every year. You have to prove yourself every snap, [even] if you’re one of the however many guys we say that have played together and are returning,” Smith said. “I can’t just show up and be like, ‘Boom, I’m here. Everything is cool. I’m just going to roll it out and it’ll be good.’ I still have to start from square one myself and get the fundamentals, study, it doesn’t stop.
“You have your experience, but everybody is trying to beat me every day so I constantly have to be proving myself. That’s the same thing with new guys. They just don’t have the experience behind it. They’ll gain it and some of ours will rub off on them. I’m excited about what we can do.”
Smith says he believes players such as second-year cornerback Kris Boyd, Hill and Hughes, who have a lot of career snaps, can become stars this season.
“I have seen some big-time plays from them,” Smith said. “I think ever since those guys stepped in, Holton, Mike, Kris — Kris did some really great things on special teams, that can translate to covering — those guys have put a lot of good reps on tape. I love how they play active, physical, can get in a lot of cuts and stuff. It is fun to be on the field with them. Those guys bring a lot of energy. Like I said, I’m excited to see what those guys can do and what we can do as a unit on the back end, along with everyone else that is going to get reps and time.”
Getting mental reps
Smith said the club is doing all they can to make the best of a training camp full of new protocols because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re still getting good work in, we’re getting all the work in that we can,” the former Notre Dame star said. “Everybody is adjusting. We’re going to figure it out and use everything that we can use within the rules. That’s pretty much all we can control.”
And while people around the league are talking about being patient, Smith said he is also reminding the young guys that this season is coming quick.
“I think as a guy who has been through a lot of years, I have figured out how to get my mental reps. I don’t always need to be running full speed,” Smith said. “I think that’s harder to grasp as a young guy, just because you haven’t put your body through as many reps, so you don’t have the muscle memory. You haven’t seen everything. I think that’s a little bit of a disadvantage for guys coming into the league. But they’ll adapt to it. And that’s how it is.
“I always like getting some preseason reps and stuff like that, just to get back into the mode and feel the hits and stuff like that. We won’t have that. But that’s how it is for everyone and everyone will make do. We’ll try to find advantages within that.”
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