Harrison Smith sees the changes in Year 2

Harrison Smith is still learning the defense, but his anticipation is getting better and he is morphing into a veteran leader in his second season in Mike Zimmer’s defense.

The Vikings are looking toward 2015 as being a breakout season in their second year of installation of the Mike Zimmer defense and Norv Turner offense. Of all the players who thrived in the new coaching schemes last year, perhaps nobody embraced the change in coaching philosophy more than safety Harrison Smith.

Those who followed the Vikings last season found it hard to miss Smith, who was freed up in the Zimmer scheme to do a lot more varied assignments than he had in the Tampa-2 defense espoused by former head coach Leslie Frazier.

As the Vikings start the process of Year 2 in the new defense, Smith said it feels like the team is well ahead of the curve the second time around and that, while the personnel constantly changes on an NFL roster, the Vikings are hitting the voluntary workouts with a new swagger in their step.

“It’s always a new team, so it’s going to be different every year,” Smith said. “For those of us who were in the defense last year, it feels like we’re more ahead of the game. I feel like we know the basics of it. Now we can get better at the defense of it. You can see by the way that Coach Zimmer works with specific guys on the little things that he’s wanting us to take it to the next level this year.”

As he enters his fourth season, Smith is no longer the new kid on the block. Young secondary players are coming to him for advice and mentoring on the intricacies. He’s becoming one of the veterans in the film room and his opinion is respected by his teammates.

While he isn’t the most vested member of the defensive back group – that would be Zimmer favorite Terence Newman – he is getting to the point in his career that he is being looked upon for his leadership, not just his natural talent.

“I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily a veteran guy because Terence is here and he’s been in this defense forever,” Smith said. “He knows it inside and out. I ask him questions all the time. But I do feel more comfortable because I’ve been able to get a lot of reps and I’m on the field a lot in game action. I should be a guy that younger guys come to and ask questions. I’m happy to take on that role. I’m getting more comfortable with that as I learn the defense more.”

Part of Smith’s maturation as a player has been his studying process. He has always considered himself a student of the game, but there is always a learning curve that needs to be addressed. He has begun to see the field with a different set of eyes. He’s no longer focused merely on his assignment on a given play, but the tendencies of the offenses he faces – whether it be an opponent on game day or against his own teammates in practice.

“There’s always something that you haven’t seen before,” Smith said. “But at the same time you need to be aware of the situation and the spot on the field. You can pick up a lot knowing what the personnel is and what they like to do. Even going against our own offense, I try to do that – make it feel like it’s a game situation and what do we like to do. There are definitely points that I can improve on, but I think my anticipation is getting better and that’s what you need to be a good safety.”

Part of that continuing education is working at the OTAs and voluntary workouts. While players in shorts and no pads may not look to the average fan like much is being accomplished, Smith believes this time of year sets the tone for the entire season.

Once the pads come on and the hitting begins, a season takes on a different flavor. But, for now, it’s the little things with technique and learning that are taking center stage and Smith believes that is just as important a factor in team success as what is learned during training camp and the preseason.

“It starts with building chemistry, but from the educational standpoint with football, I think this is a great time,” Smith said. “It’s not padded. It’s not a complete grind. It’s something where you’re going to get your reps, evaluate yourself and get coached up on the whole game. Training camp is such a grind. These type of voluntary workouts aren’t as physical, so it gives you a chance to learn more in a small amount of time.”

For the first time in a long time, the Vikings have become one of the trendy picks among analysts who evaluate rosters and try to pick what team will make the jump from the middle of the pack to a playoff team. While the players on all 32 teams come into a season believing this will be their year, the Vikings have every reason for optimism.

That being said, Smith isn’t getting overconfident or ahead of himself. Zimmer has gone to great lengths over the past few weeks to instill that point. The Vikings weren’t even a .500 team last year, but with a much brighter outlook heading into the 2015 season, it’s a little harder to temper the enthusiasm, even if the Vikings are being realistic about their chances this season.

“I’ve heard a lot of that over the last month or so, but you can’t let that affect you,” Smith said. “Zim has already got on us about that – not to think that success will just come to us. We were 7-9 last year and that’s not good enough. We’re just looking to keep working hard because we feel like we’re getting to the point that we can be a really good team, but we haven’t proved it yet.”

If the Vikings are to prove it in 2015, Smith will be in the middle of it for their defense. He is already reaching Pro Bowl consideration and this may be the year he breaks through and earns the recognition of his peers. If that happens, you can bet that team success will mirror his individual accomplishments.

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