The Minnesota Vikings haven't had a standout or even steady performer at either safety spot since Darren Sharper left four years ago.
Harrison Smith should be able to help. He's been playing this position almost his entire life.
"The first time I played safety was like in elementary school," said Smith, the rookie from Notre Dame who grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. "I remember my coach saying I was going to play the spot where the Tennessee Volunteers' leading tackler played the last year, and I thought he was talking about linebacker. But it was safety, and he was talking about Deon Grant."
Grant recently punctuated a 12-season NFL career with a Super Bowl title with the New York Giants, so he's been a good example for Smith to study. Steve Atwater and Sean Taylor were two other former NFL stars at safety who Smith cited as models for his game.
"My favorite part is kind of being able to be on the back end and the front end, just because safeties have the ability to drop down in the box or play deep. So you can kind of get the best of both worlds," Smith said.
Asked to choose between an interception or a big hit, he said: "They both serve their purposes. I think interceptions help the team the most. But big hits, they get everybody pumped up."
Smith has contributed his share of those at training camp this month, even trading shoves, stares and angry words with star wide receiver Percy Harvin during one particularly snippy practice. This 6-foot-2, 214-pound rookie, taken with the 29th overall pick in the draft after the Vikings traded into the end of the first round, clearly has an edge to the way he plays.
"I love that. You want your safeties to be quarterbacks and smart but you want some nastiness to them too, and he has that," said defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
The Vikings have also wanted Smith to stay hungry and not simply walk in to a starting spot. He didn't begin working with the first-team defense until this week, while Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford manned the position. But they're both late-round draft picks (Sanford went in the seventh in 2009 and Raymond in the sixth in 2011), and they both struggled to stop the run in last Friday's preseason game at San Francisco in which the 49ers rushed for 260 yards.
So Smith has moved past Sanford on the depth chart.
"He played well. The game wasn't too big for him. He looked like he belonged out there," Williams said of Smith. "Again, we want to see that same thing. Can he get lined up? Can he communicate to the defense? Can he operate within the defense and can he do that on a consistent basis? When a play comes at him can he make the play?"
There's no indication that he can't. The only player in Notre Dame history to total more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups in a career (he tallied 309, 18½ and 28 in those categories), Smith was just the second safety drafted in the first round by the Vikings in their 52-year history. Joey Browner in 1983 was the other. After the excellence of Paul Krause in the 1970s and Browner in the 1980s, the Vikings have had a dearth of quality safeties.
Sharper was picked for two Pro Bowls, in 2005 and 2007. The only others with that honor between Browner and Sharper were Todd Scott (1992), Robert Griffith (2000) and Corey Chavous (2003). Husain Abdullah, Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams are among those who've struggled to consistently give the Vikings a sure-tackling, smart-running, ball-hawking player at the position in recent years.
So maybe Smith can become the next Browner or Krause. His success would go a long way toward shoring up a defense that sprung a lot of leaks last year.
"I hope he's really, really awesome," said a smiling defensive end Jared Allen, "because that gives me more time to hit the quarterback."
The Vikings were most enamored with Smith's versatility at the position. He played some outside linebacker at Notre Dame, so his run-stopping skills should be there.
"He is better at everything than I really thought. He's a tall guy, and usually tall guys are a little bit leggy and may not be quick-footed, but right now he's excelling at the pass coverage," Williams said. "We put him on tight end and he's been extremely effective."
Playing the position well usually comes easier when a guy like Smith has been enjoying it for so many years.
"Not think too much," he said. "Just run and play football."
Harrison Smith instinctive with 'nastiness'
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