Harrison Smith discusses rookie wall, grind

Harrison Smith and Rick Spielman know the rookie wall is real and why it exists. Smith was told no season would be harder than his rookie one.

When rookies enter into the NFL, there is always the discussion of them "hitting the rookie wall." As the story goes, rookies have never played a 20-game NFL schedule and, about the time their high school and college seasons typically would end in early to mid-November, the NFL stretch run is just kicking in.

Does the rookie wall exist or is it an understood NFL myth? Safety Harrison Smith and general manager Rick Spielman put an interesting spin on what can cause what many believe is simply college players adjusting to the NFL game.

Smith was a rookie starter last year who was asked to improve a safety group that had been pedestrian at best in previous seasons. Smith believes the difference in where he is now as an NFL player is a far cry from where he was a year ago.

"It's like a night and day difference," Smith said. "Last year was like trying to drink out of a fire hose – everything was coming at you so fast. Now I have a better feel for our defense and all the players, I have a much better understanding of what I need to do and what my job is. And just as important, I was actually able to get some rest."

Smith knew what he was in for making the transition to the NFL. It's common knowledge that the speed and physicality of the NFL game is markedly higher than the college game, but what may not be as immediately evident is the strain that is put on college players. It starts in the spring of their final college season and doesn't end until the conclusion of their rookie season in the NFL.

"All the guys told me last year that your rookie season is probably the hardest one you'll ever go through," Smith said. "It gets really long and never seems to fully end. Rolling straight from college to working out to training camp to playing 21 games last year, it was an exhausting process. By the time January came along, I was looking forward to taking a little time off. It's hard to go 100 percent all the time. You learn to kick up when you need to and take time to recuperate. It's a process."

Spielman said the process in which college players try to make the jump to the NFL can be the truest test of their athletic ability because, unlike just about every other season they have, there is almost no "down time" for them to recuperate and rebuild their bodies.

"When you look at rookies who are starters right away, they basically go about 18 months without a break," Spielman said. "They start in spring ball in their last season at college, go through an entire season to their bowl game, then move on to the Senior Bowl and the combine and then they train for pro days and team workouts. Once they get drafted, they start working out with their new teams right away and go through their first NFL season. By the time that first year is done, most of them have been working almost 18 months without much in the way of a break. That's why so many of them wear down as rookies."

Smith said he intends to try to provide some guidance to the Vikings' rookie class, especially to first-rounders Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes and Cordarrelle Patterson – all of whom are expected to play significant roles with the 2013 Vikings – to give them the kind of advice he got from veteran players last year. Hopefully, they will listen, even though the competitive spirit that burns inside players might make that a little difficult.

"I was told a lot about wearing down as the season went on, but kind of thought that is something that happens to other guys, not me," Smith said. "It wasn't until I got some time off after the season and actually got some rest that I figured out what they were talking about. I put my body through a lot over the past year and a half and I could really feel it once I got healed up. It was a lot more draining physically and mentally – trying to keep your body in top condition and keep yourself mentally sharp. It was a learning experience and one that I think a lot of guys don't fully understand until after they've been through it."

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.

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