Harrison Smith -- five seasons, two Pro Bowls and nearly $60 million in contracts since his departure from Notre Dame – is at Winter Park in Eden Prairie, Minn., where the Vikings are in the midst of Phase 2 of their off-season workout program.
He’s just completed a workout with the veterans on the squad, awaiting the arrival next week of Minnesota’s recent draft picks and free-agent signings.
“This is our third week of workouts,” said Smith in an exclusive interview with Irish Illustrated. “This phase is workouts, lifting, running, and then we actually get on the field, but we can’t do a whole lot. We can do our individual drills and our walk-through plays. That’s about it.”
Smith is coming off his second straight selection to the NFL Pro Bowl following a 91-tackle season in an otherwise forgettable year for the Vikings, who won their first five games before losing eight of their last 11 and missing the playoffs following a wildcard berth a year earlier.
Smith discussed the intricacies of safety play and a variety of topics with Irish Illustrated.
TIM PRISTER: We always hear about the difficulty of playing the safety position on the collegiate and professional level. In a nutshell, can you explain what is entailed in the responsibilities of playing the free safety position?
HARRISON SMITH: It’s just a more mental approach to the game. For most teams, the linebackers and the safeties get everybody lined up. The linebackers normally take care of the front seven and the safeties handle things on the back end.
Most of it is study and anticipation, going through what could happen, even though you might never get that adjustment during a game. You still have to be prepared that if they come out in this formation and motion to this and we’re in this call, how do things change? Then you go through every call with that movement or that motion or the tight end trading sides…you have to consider it with every possible outcome.
You might only see 10 percent of it on game day, but you already have it covered and you already know what the next move is before it happens. That’s hard to do in college because you don’t have all the time of a full-time job like you do in the pros.
TP: So these decisions that you’re making obviously are based upon the film study of that particular opponent during the week. George Edwards, the Vikings defensive coordinator, is providing a good portion of that information for you. How much film study do you have to do during the week?
HS: Everybody learns differently, so you have to figure out what works for you. It took me a while to figure out how to watch film and how to actually take what I studied and apply it to my game. That’s not something you show up to college knowing how to do. So it took me a while to figure that out with coaches along the way helping me figure it out.
For me, when I was at Notre Dame, I would go up to (former director of player personnel) Tim McDonnell’s office every day after practice and watch film, watch games of whatever opponent we were playing. While we watched film, we would make a call and then go through the call. We’d do that a game-a-day or a game-and-a-half-a-day. How do you play this in 3rd-and-7 versus 3rd-and-3? That kind of stuff.
But I have five years in the league and I’m still trying to figure things out. You’re never going to be to the point where you’ve got it figured out. But you have to try to advance on something every day. Having the time to do it and committing yourself to figuring out how you can learn it best is part of the process.
TP: You play teams in your division twice in a season, so you know them better. But just in general, how often do offenses break tendencies and throw new or different stuff at you?
HS: It depends from offense to offense. Some teams will script the first 15 plays, so there might be a lot of new things you haven’t seen before. Other teams might stick to who they are, run their stuff and say, ‘We’re going to execute better than you’re going to execute.’
It’s week-to-week. You have to know your opponent’s tendencies, whether they stay the same or they’re going to try new stuff. You have to adapt. Sometimes there are things you’ve never seen and never thought of and they beat you. Those are the things you have to get corrected at halftime or on the sideline.
TP: How often do the plays that break tendencies end up being the big plays against you?
HS: Not always. Sometimes you misfit a run that you’ve seen a hundred times. You miss a tackle. Stuff like that. That’s what makes the game so difficult. You can be prepared for something mentally, but then you have a physical breakdown and a big play happens.
TP: What’s the decision-making process at safety between you and the strong safety?
HS: We both have to make decisions and calls. You have to handle your side. I hesitate to even say making decisions because they should be predetermined. You just have to know all the scenarios and tendencies.
Then, on top of that, just being a football player and recognizing formations and how they want to use their go-to guys on specific downs-and-distances. That’s when your individual study and understanding of the game can help you.
TP: How much more extensive were coverages when you went from Notre Dame compared to the Vikings?
HS: They’re definitely more extensive. A bigger playbook, more things going on, and it’s different depending upon which team you play for. The schemes are different, whether you’re playing for the Ryan brothers or Coach (Mike) Zimmer or whether you’re playing in a Tampa Two scheme. They’re all different. Wherever you play, you’re going to have to learn more than what you had in college, although you have more time as well.
TP: You’ve got to know a new opponent every week. That studying has to get overwhelming at times.
HS: No doubt, it does, but you’ve got to find a way to kind of reset every week and separate, which is hard to do. You’re not always successful doing it. But as soon as one game is over and you watch the film and correct the bad things, you have to almost – I don’t want to say forget it because you still want to hold on to what you learned – but you have to move on to the next opponent because they may play a whole different style of football.
TP: One of things I’ve always wondered with football players on the college and professional level is how you balance the thinking that goes on while still having to be athletic, physical and instinctive at the same time. How can you be athletic and physical with so much to process mentally?
HS: That’s a good point. I remember when I first got to Notre Dame, I knew I was athletic. I knew I could run and tackle and make plays. Pairing that with the mental part made me look un-athletic. I just couldn’t do things fast. Nothing seemed natural; it all seemed forced.
It’s repetition and studying off the field. Trying to imagine yourself doing those things really does let you play faster, and it makes you just be that athlete.
Everyone that goes to Notre Dame was a great player in high school. Everyone is athletic and at least one of the best players on the team. So you all have the physical ability. You just have to adapt and make it as smooth of a transition to the mental aspect of the game as you can and not let it slow you down, otherwise you’re going to feel un-athletic. You feel like you can’t make a play, like you’re one step away. You can be aligned a yard off where you should be aligned, and those things add up.
TP: From a key perspective, what are one, two, three on your list of priorities pre-snap?
HS: That’s a loaded question because each situation is different. No matter what defense you play – 3-4, 4-3 -- every defense has calls that are their go-to calls. So those are what I start with, and then depending upon who you’re playing, your opponent favors different formations.
In that sense, college is actually harder because you play a couple teams that are normal football-type stuff, and then you play Navy. It’s like playing a whole different game almost. The quarterback option game is more prevalent than it is in the pros. In the pros, a lot of things are the same from team to team. They might run different routes, but the formations and style are similar.
TP: If you’re in the Pac 12 or the SEC or the ACC, there are conference tendencies as a whole. But as an independent playing teams from four or five different conferences, that has to be more difficult.
HS: Absolutely. It just throws a wrinkle into things. You might play well in one game and then you have to move on to the next game and re-learn the base coverage you’re used to playing, which you might not have run the week before. Then it could switch the next week after that.
So it’s a little harder, and then you’re a college student. You’ve got to find time for things.
TP: When you were at Notre Dame and you were flying to a game or coming back from a game, did you have the mindset to study for your classes or prepare for a test? Could you turn off what you just went through physically and emotionally, or what you had to prepare for with a game the next day?
HS: I couldn’t, to be honest. Like when I play a game now, as soon as I can watch the film, I watch it, and then I’ll watch it the next day. It’s hard to get in and out of that mindset.
Playing in the pros is great because that’s all I do. I just have to watch film all the time. Being in college and actually having to go to classes and handle your work, you’ve got to figure out a way to do it. It’s hard, but everybody does it, so that’s not an excuse. You have to know what you need to do and how to manage your time.
TP: We’re just talking about the mental part of the game. But in the process, you also getting beaten up from week to week. How do you shut out the pain/injuries while you’re still trying to mentally do your job? How can you put the physical setbacks behind while you’re trying to do all those things mentally?
HS: It all starts with the mental part. The first thing you have to do is figure out how to play fast. If you go out there and I know I didn’t watch enough film, I’m not going to play well. As long as I did what I had to do beforehand, I’m just going to go out there and play. You’re always going to have nicks and bruises. You might have something that’s a little worse. Sometimes you might not be able to play. It’s just not possible.
On game day, as a competitor, you just turn it on. I don’t know if the pain subsides for a little bit or you just convince yourself that it doesn’t matter. A lot of times, as soon as the game ends, you realize, ‘Wow, that area of my body really hurts!’ You’re so focused on playing and competing with all that adrenaline going, it’s natural. You love playing and you love the physical aspect of the game.
The body just knows that and adjusts.
TP: There has to be players that can’t flip that switch and can’t separate the pain from just competing. That must separate the good from the great.
HS: I would think so. You hear about guys playing through some really significant things. You never know how people feel from game to game. Everybody works differently on being able to block out pain and being able to adapt and play when you’re not 100 percent. It’s rare when you’re 100 percent when you play in a 16-game regular season, plus playoffs.
By the same token, it’s your job and you have all your time to devote to making sure you are right physically. You have the means to get massages multiple times per week. You can get whatever extra care you need whereas in college, you’re grinding all the time and don’t have the means to do those things on a regular basis. That’s something as a pro that you need to understand. You need to take care of your body as best as you can, even when you feel good because it’s going to add up.
One of the guys I play with is Terence Newman. He’ll be 39 by the time the season starts, and he’s still playing at a very high level at corner, which is unbelievable. He’s a guy who has taken care of his body. He’s a smart player. He does what the coaches ask of him. He competes every day. He was just out here running hard and conditioning today. He’s a guy that loves the game and he always turns it on for game day. But he’s always preparing for it.
TP: Let’s jump back to your Notre Dame experiences. I’m not sure people realize that during your time at Notre Dame, you played for three coordinators – Corwin Brown, Jon Tenuta and Bob Diaco. That had to be a perpetual adjustment. Plus, in your second year of play (after red-shirting), you bumped up to linebacker for a season. How much carryover was there from one coordinator to the next?
HS: There wasn’t a lot of carryover. Thinking about it now, we play a coverage similar to what I played in college and it’s called the same thing. But it’s run differently. I align in a different spot. The hash marks are different, which completely changes the game.
You know what Cover Two is and you know what quarters-coverage is, but when you run them there versus here or wherever, it’s always a little different. You have to figure out what defense your coach is playing and you have to figure out exactly what your coach wants out of you and put that on film.
It’s one thing to say and think you know it, but it’s another thing to go out there and play it exactly the way that coach wants you to play it. Only then will they know they can trust you to be exactly in the spot they want you in.
TP: Can you give us an insight into those three personalities? Corwin Brown obviously encountered some difficulties in his life off the field after you left Notre Dame. Tenuta is known for his distrust – actually hate would be more like it – for the media. But the players all seemed to really like and respond to him. Diaco was a unique personality in his own right.
HS: Corwin was fiery and passionate about the game. He had a lot of experience after having played in the league for six or seven years. He had that platform to speak from.
(laughing) We all knew Tenuta didn’t like the media, which we thought was funny and we kind of liked it. It was funny to watch. It’s just his thing. But he taught me a lot about the game at linebacker and safety.
Then when Diaco came in, his style of defense was a lot different and I got to focus on just playing safety. He instilled a lot of confidence in his players. He let you know how good you were and built you up.
Chuck Martin was the DB coach at the time, and he helped me a lot when Diaco came in. Those two guys really helped me pick my game up. You figure your coaches out and you understand their approach and how sincere they are and what they really believe.
With Diaco, I totally understood that he was very sincere and that he believed everything that he said. It was easy to buy in with Diaco. But all those guys were different. The coaches I play for now are different. As a player, you have to learn how to do what your coaches want you to do, no matter what their personality is or how they deliver it to you.
Chuck was a guy that would get all over you. But he was coaching you, so you would have to deflect it and figure out what he wanted, which I really liked. Diaco would get on you, but it wasn’t quite as bad. So you have to figure out that whatever they’re trying to deliver to you, you have to put that on the field.
Tenuta would get on you, but I liked playing for him. I stay in touch with him. One of my good buddies played for him at N.C. State, and another one of our safeties played for him at UVA. You meet guys who played for different coaches and you share your stories.
TP: Speaking of the media, that part of the job – with everything you have to learn and do mentally, emotionally and physically within the game – has to be a real pain at times.
HS: It depends on guys’ personalities. There are guys that love it and do a really good job with the media. There are guys that love it and do a really bad job, too. The majority of guys don’t like talking to the media, but in the pros, it’s in your contract. You have to talk to the media, or you at least have to be available.
When you see the same reporters every day, you want to have a good relationship with them. You want to answer their questions truthfully and give them…not that we’re co-workers, but you want to have a good working relationship. They have a job to do and if you have a bad game, they’ve got to write about it. I try not to take those things personally, but as a competitor, that’s what fuels me, too.
You’ve got a job and I’ve got a job and we’re both going to do it. There are times where I get upset after a game, and when that happens, it’s better to say as few words as possible or you’ll get yourself in trouble.
I had a tough time with talking to the media when I got to Notre Dame. But the more you do it, the better it gets. Eventually, I figured it out.