Casual fans likely couldn’t name more than one or two members of the Minnesota Vikings practice squad. They don’t suit up on game day. They’re often relatively anonymous outside of their team facility, but they play a crucial role during the season – simulating players from opposing teams and taking reps from veterans who need a rest.
Until last week, safety Anthony Harris was one of those guys. He was biding his time on the practice squad, hoping the work he was putting in would make enough of an impression on the coaching staff that he would find a spot on the 53-man roster.
When that opportunity came last week against the high-powered Arizona offense, Harris took advantage of his opportunity in the national spotlight, tying for the team lead with eight tackles and being one of the defensive bright spots.
One of the keys for Harris to make a big splash is his NFL debut was his demeanor. A lot of guys can talk a good game. One of the keys was Harris wasn’t talking trash, he was shutting up and taking it all in.
“I would say the most important part is listening and visually paying attention as well,” Harris said. “Not only taking coaching tips when they’re talking to you, but when they’re talking to the guys around you – whether it’s a guy at another position or somebody you’re working with. It’s just learning the defense as a whole and being able to put the pieces together.”
Harris had been practicing each week as if he would be playing, but the reality was that, despite all the hard work he put in during the week, on game day he wasn’t on the field. He was a spectator.
Some players could get frustrated and let their concentration and drive lapse a bit. After all, they’ve been starters since they were playing Pop Warner ball. To be a member of the team and not playing can get to some players. Harris avoided that issue and said his focus has always been on waiting for his opportunity and pouncing on it when it arrived.
“I think everybody has to wait for their opportunity to come,” Harris said. “Me personally, I just tried to be patient, not rush it and just let it come to me. Timing in this league is a big part. My time came and I just tried to take advantage of it.”
Harris admitted that at times it can get a little frustrating seeing plays happen that he is convinced he could have blown up, but, at the same time, he is aware of the talent the Vikings have at the safety position. He knew he had to keep proving himself to the coaches and his teammates, even if it was done largely in the anonymity of in-season practice.
Nobody wants to be on the practice squad. It beats the alternative of not having a job, but everyone on any practice squad in the NFL wants to get to the 53-man roster. With the veteran safeties the Vikings had in front of Harris, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy to crack the lineup without at least one of them going down to injury.
“Part of you wants to be out there in the game – having fun, making plays,” Harris said. “But, we’ve some great guys, a lot older guys that have been around and played a lot of football. They’ve been going there and making it happen. I’m just being a good teammate – trying to support them, let them know what I’m seeing from my standpoint and just help this team win.”
One of the bigger challenges Harris has faced is learning the complicated Mike Zimmer defense. Even vested veterans have had problems at times picking up on the nuances of the defense, but Harris has been a good student and eager to try to pick up as much as he can as quickly as he can.
He may get another chance to start on Sunday against the Chicago Bears. Although Andrew Sendejo returned to practice this week, Harrison Smith wasn’t practicing on a full-time basis and Harris appeared to be the option next the Sendejo.
His commitment to listening and processing everything that is said by coaches and teammates – whether they’re talking directly to him or not – has been a key to his improvement during his rookie season.
“It’s been pretty challenging, but I feel that one of my strong suits is being able to pick up on the different concepts,” Harris said. “I think I’ve been doing a decent job of trying to do that – not only Zim, but the other coaches and other players as well, doing a good job of telling me different tips. I’m just doing as much as I can to hold on and grasp it.”