Harrison Smith (Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY)
Harrison Smith said he can see why the league fined him last year, but he doesn’t want to change too much in his approach to the game after a strong, aggressive rookie season.
A year ago at this time, fans and media were wondering if rookie safety Harrison Smith could be the savior of the Vikings defensive backfield. Safety had been identified as a clear weakness – some might contend it was a weakness from the time the team didn’t re-sign Darren Sharper – and Smith was brought in to change that perception.
Despite not being on the first line of the depth chart throughout the preseason, Smith was expected to be a starter because most first-round draft picks aren’t brought in to watch and learn for a couple of years. At the time, Smith wasn’t concerned about whether he would be introduced with the other starters. His mind was flooded with information overload and the Vikings defensive scheme and was a little to overwhelmed to worry about his standing on the depth chart.
“Coming in last year, there were a lot of unknowns,” Smith said. “You guys (in the media) were asking me questions about being a starter, but I had never heard anything from the coaches about it. I was pretty much just feeling my way along and trying to get up to speed as quickly as I could. Once I got out on the field in the preseason, I started feeling more comfortable. That’s when things started to slow down for me and I got in my comfort zone doing what comes naturally.”
Smith said he was impressed with the level of play from fellow safeties Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond and has seen the progression with young safeties Robert Blanton and Andrew Sendejo. As he sees it, the Vikings have five quality safeties that can all contribute and he isn’t the savior of the position that so many claimed he needed to be in training camp last season.
“The thing I have noticed is that I didn’t come in and change the safety position for us,” Smith said. “Every safety on the team is playing at a high level. It may have been seen as a weakness back in 2011, but we have a lot of good safeties on this team. We all help each other to get better.”
Smith’s rookie season was a roller coaster of emotions. He garnered a lot of attention with 129 tackles and three interceptions – two of which he returned for touchdowns. But he also got the attention of the NFL fine police with his aggressive play and learned the hard way that he needs to keep himself under more control or he will pay for it.
“It was a strange year,” he said. “I feel like I was at the bottom and the top at different points of the season. Getting ejected from a game for touching a ref was one of the low points. That’s never happened to me before, but it was a learning experience … and pretty embarrassing. I didn’t like the idea of giving away a portion of every paycheck back to the league for fines I got, but I could understand why they did it.”
Head coach Leslie Frazier, a hard hitter in the secondary with the Chicago Bears of Super Bowl vintage, emphasized that there is a fine line between being an intimidating safety and one who draws penalties and can hurt his team.
“You never want to have a safety that is passive, but it’s about keeping your emotions in check and doing things technically sound,” Frazier said. “Harrison is learning that process. He is a very talented young man and he’s only going to get better and he gets more experience.”
Smith admits that he had some “happy feet” early in the season last year, being so tightly wired to make plays that he occasionally got himself out of position. But, as good players do, he learned from his mistakes and didn’t repeat them very often.
“I gained a lot of confidence in my play as the year went on,” Smith said. “That’s carried over and, this time around, everything we’re going through is something I’ve already done and I can focus more on doing the little things you need to do to improve your game. I’m picking up on my keys a little bit quicker and know what offenses are doing more. Earlier I was worried more about just being in my spot. Now I’m seeing the field more and able to not worry just about where I’m supposed to be, but what the offense is trying to do against us.”
Are Vikings fans going to see a kinder, gentler Smith in 2013? Don’t bet on it. Smith is driven by instinct and doesn’t foresee big changes to his game. He’s aggressive and is going to stay that way.
“I don’t think I’m going to change my style of play too much,” Smith said. “It may sound stupid, but you don’t want to be doing too much thinking out there. If you start worrying about where to hit a guy, that’s when you miss tackles and, at safety, is you miss a tackle, the other team scores touchdowns. I’m aware of some of the things that they’ve told me as to why I got fined or penalized for a hit, but there isn’t time to think too much when the game is being played at full speed. If it means I give away more of my paycheck to the league, I guess I’ll just have to do it. I’m not a dirty player, but I play with aggression and sometimes that gets a penalty flag thrown.”
If there is an upside to the attention Smith has garnered from the league, it’s that wide receivers have learned the hard way that you enter the Smith Zone, they are at risk – and that’s not going to change any time soon.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.