Since Darren Sharper wasn't re-signed following the 2008 season, the Vikings have had a relative revolving door at safety. Guys like Madieu Williams, Tyrell Johnson, Husain Abdullah, Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford have tried to be a difference-makers at the position – with varying degrees of success.
The Vikings believe they have found their man, trading back into the first round of April's draft to select Harrison Smith from Notre Dame. A heavy hitter and playmaker at the safety spot, Smith was viewed from Day One as being projected as an opening-day starter once the regular season began.
With the days ticking down to Sunday's opener against Jacksonville, the Vikings made it official that Smith will be the starter – the first start in what the organization hopes will last the remainder of the decade. He was drafted to be a defensive foundation building block, but the starting job wasn't simply handed to him. He spent most of training camp taking reps with the second-team defense. While it seemed to be only a matter of time before Smith ascended to the starting lineup, he had to earn his stripes – which he did when he was named a starter for the regular season opener.
Smith admitted that being a starter immediately was an ultimate goal, but it had to be earned and learned. To that end, he feels he has made the progress needed to earn the trust of the coaching staff to put him out on the field as a starter.
"To be honest, everybody coming in here wants to be the starter," Smith said. "That's the competition of the game. For me, it wasn't about whether I was going to see my name with the twos (second team) or the ones (starters). I was just trying to learn the system as quickly as I could and get up to speed as to what was expected of me."
Smith has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff for how quickly he has picked up the scheme of new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, but locking down a starting job won't lead to complacency. It was the first of many items on Smith's professional checklist that he has been able to mark off, but winning a starting spot is only half the job – keeping it is the next step.
"There's always more to learn," Smith said. "I definitely don't have it all down – knowing all the details and everything else that goes with it. But, I feel like I have a pretty strong grasp of what we're doing and sharpen it every day."
Smith made a big impression at camp and in the preseason both for his coverage skills in the passing game and his willingness to provide run support in the box. However, after spending much of the preseason working with the second-team defense, he understands that now that the games count, he has to ramp up his game to the next level.
"I'm not naïve enough to think that the preseason games are the same speed as the regular season games," Smith said. "To me, that will probably be the No. 1 thing – another level up from what I've already jumped from in college. It will be another step. That's what I'm preparing myself for."
To date, the biggest news that Smith has made was being fined $21,000 for a vicious hit that helped San Diego keep its final drive of the third preseason game alive, leading to the game-winning field goal in a 12-10 loss. While he admits that he made a mistake by drilling a defenseless receiver, the amount of the fine – especially for a rookie who isn't paid all that much in the big picture of the NFL – was unexpected when he opened the FedEx envelope from the league office in New York.
"I was surprised," Smith said. "I'm not the kind of guy who takes cheap shots, so when I saw that not only I got one, but the amount it was, I was very surprised. At the end of the day, though, I don't have any say in it. All I can do is just try to learn from it and move forward."
As the Vikings begin the rebuilding process from the horrendous 2011 season, Smith will be a key component piece to that puzzle. Is he nervous about taking the next step? For now, he isn't thinking about it … but that will be subject to change Sunday.
"Not really," Smith said about thinking about his official pro debut. "I'm just trying to get prepared for the game. When it comes, I'll enjoy it – I'll get nervous, I'll get everything. But, at the end of the day, it's football, so I'm happy to be playing."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Smith starting just one step in his process
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