The Vikings saw two plug-and-play safeties in the 2012 NFL Draft and made sure they got one of them as a "difference-maker" in the secondary.
Former Alabama safety Mark Barron was selected only three picks after Minnesota took Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 4 overall, and Vikings general manager Rick Spielman didn't want to risk another team picking Harrison Smith. Spielman was true to his draft-trading tendencies, sending the team's second-round pick to Baltimore to move back into the first round and grab Smith at No. 29 overall.
Less than a year later, Spielman and the Vikings couldn't be happier with the results. That includes defensive coordinator Alan Williams, who was asked what about Smith impressed him most.
"Everything. He didn't play like a rookie. Usually rookies make rookie mistakes and he didn't do that," Williams said. "The biggest thing: Availability – he was that all through the year and it was a long season."
Smith did prove durable. He and Kalil tied a Vikings record by becoming only the second set of rookies in franchise history to start every game in their rookie season.
It was apparent shortly after Smith first donned a Vikings uniform in practice that he was going to win one of the two starting safety spots. Once the games started, he helped change the perception of Minnesota's secondary.
"He didn't make a bunch of mistakes where there are balls going over his head. He tackled extremely well. He was physical, so that was good. And, you know what, he added something to the defense in terms of his leadership and he got guys lined up," Williams said. "So all those things you usually don't get from a rookie; those are veteran things that he was doing. And he did it consistently. It wasn't where this week he's flashing and you're thinking, ‘Boy, this guy is coming along' and then the next week he doesn't show up. He (played) consistent football. That's really what wins games."
Smith said he started feeling comfortable with his position and his teammates at the start of the regular season. It showed.
He finished the season second on the team with 123 tackles and was fourth with 10 passes defensed. He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions and returned two of those for touchdowns.
But it was his aggressive hitting that first got him noticed – in good ways and bad. He was fined $21,000 for a preseason hit on San Diego Chargers receiver Mike Willie. Two months later, he was fined $15,750 for a horsecollar tackle on Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Smith said he appealed both fines, without any benefit.
"I really only got clipped once in the preseason and once for a horsecollar. It'll probably happen every now and then, but I don't think it's a problem," he said.
Williams was thankful that Smith learned to adjust but didn't lower his aggressiveness.
"I was worried that it would. I was thinking, boy, he's not going to play as aggressively and as physical as he usually does. But, he didn't," the defensive coordinator said. "He learned from it again. He would lower his target and he still played lights-out. I think each time I would look to see if the ballgame after he got himself in trouble, how he played. It was as hard or better that next ballgame."
Smith said he would like to see the Vikings secondary create more turnovers, saying "that's usually the difference-maker in games."
He called his rookie season a learning experience, but when it came to difference-makers on defense, Smith was as big as any for the Vikings in 2012.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Harrison Smith lived up to expectations
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