Anthony Harris has been waiting for his opportunity and it looks like he will get it this Thursday against the NFL’s top-ranked offense.
Harris, the three-year starter at Virginia who had 289 tackles there, went undrafted and signed with the Minnesota Vikings when the 2015 draft was over. Since then, he’s been learning the finer points of Mike Zimmer’s defense.
“He’s very fine on details, not just knowing your assignment but knowing how the offense is going to attack us,” Harris said. “We pressure a bit, so knowing where their hots are and knowing where they’re going to attack us off different looks. It’s just all about staying on your technique, knowing your assignments and playing fast and aggressive.”
With injuries to starting safety Harrison Smith and backup Antone Exum placed on injured reserve on Tuesday, Harris was promoted to the active roster from the practice squad. In addition, the Vikings re-signed defensive back Shaun Prater, who was with the team in 2013 and 2014.
But Harris’ career ascension might not end with a promotion to the active roster. With Smith likely out and Exum out for sure, there is a good chance Harris will not only play in his first NFL game, but start.
“Maybe just naturally a little bit more focused, but I try to be tuned in even throughout the season,” Harris said. “If I’m on the sidelines at the game, get the calls and watch and see where everybody is and playing the game and getting mental reps in my head, even when I’m at the game and not physically on the field. I’ve been trying to do that to this point, getting as many mental reps as I can and then putting myself in position if I am physically to be out there to make a play.”
Practice squad players attend home games and, although they don’t put on the uniform and pads, Harris has made it a point to get all the work in he can from that sideline vantage point.
“When I’m on the sideline, I’m doing everything that I would pretty much be doing if I was on the field, making sure I know our defensive personnel, knowing the offensive personnel, seeing what down it is, try to listen in to the coaches and see what calls they’re giving out for defensive coverages and going from there, seeing what formations the offense comes out in, what calls I would have to make if I were out on the field in a particular position,” he said. “From there, just trying to decide by down and distance what route I might be getting, and once the play starts, from there it’s how I would do my eye progression and then work wherever my eyes are supposed to be in that particular coverage. Sometimes, being a spectator, you tend to watch the game a little bit. But for the most part I try to get the mental reps.”
Although he doesn’t wear an ear piece to hear the calls, he makes a point to stand by a linebacker that has an ear piece in his helmet or next to a coach to hear what is going on.
When the Vikings are on the road and Harris is relegated to watch at home on television, he tries to diagnose what defense was called based off the alignments of players.
“Some of our looks, just based off where guys are leaning and some of their starting positions and alignments I can kind of tell what defensive coverage we’re playing,” he said. “But it’s not always right because guys do a good job of disguising.”
All of that should help if Harris does, indeed, getting the starting call against Carson Palmer, Larry Fitgerald Jr. and company on Thursday night, but he’s trying to keep his approach pragmatic.
“If my opportunity comes, it’s not about me; it’s about doing what the team needs to be successful,” he said.
He said nerves shouldn’t be a problem.
“I don’t think so, maybe a bit excitement going into the game,” he said. “But I feel like once the lights come on and games get going, my mind is solely on football.
“I would say my strength is just keeping my composure, in big moments being able to stay calm. Big moments, just being able to stay calm, take in a moment, slow down my adrenaline and be able to process what’s going on around me.”
Harris started 35 of 49 games at Virginia – 12 at free safety and 23 on the strong side, recording 289 tackles (145 solos) with two sacks for minus-12 yards and six stops for losses of 39 yards. He caused two fumbles, deflected 19 passes and intercepted 11 others for 95 yards, also gaining 13 yards on a pair of blocked punt runbacks.
“I would say my biggest play as far as impacting an game, my junior year at BYU, we’re down three points, about two or three minutes left in the game and we needed a stop or turnover. We were in a coverage, I just read it, got to the ball, it was tipped and I got an interception,” he said. “I ended up pitching it back to a linebacker, who ran it for another 15 yards. It set up a touchdown. I think that game was one of my biggest moments, just because of how the game went. There was a big storm delay. There was a delay at halftime. I had a blocked punt. I would say that was probably one of my biggest plays.”
But it was hardly the only big play he made in college.
He had a string of five straight games with at least one interception.
He’s had some big games in college, but this is the NFL’s Thursday Night Football against the best offense in the league.
“There’s nothing you can really compare to this level,” he said.