Smith Making Strides … And Blocks

Onterrio Smith isn't making the start at running back on Saturday, but his coach and a veteran teammate are starting to believe he could be the answer. See what they have to say about his progress.

Through the first couple weeks of training camp, there is no clear-cut leader in the race to replace running back Michael Bennett. The first notion was that Moe Williams was the obvious choice. Larry Ned was practicing well, so he gained the perceived fanfare. Until Bennett was out, Doug Chapman was never looked upon as a starting running back, so that leaves rookie Onterrio Smith as the one player that has been kept under radar in Mankato.

It isn't that Smith hasn't been making some noise in practice. Actually until only recently, Smith was being looked upon by the team as a player that may not be able to make a significant contribution to the team in the early portion of the 2003 season. Missing the majority of the team's minicamps and offseason workout sessions due to a late graduating class in Oregon, Smith was behind the eight-ball from the start with the Vikings.

Matters were not helped when Smith was a holdout from training camp. All the time that a rookie player, especially a fourth-round draft selection, misses from the team structure is time lost never to be regained. Not being in camp certainly did not enhance his opportunity to land — or much less compete — for the opening in the Vikings backfield.

"He was far behind in preparation and understanding the offense, much less the responsibilities for the running backs heading in camp. A player can have all the talent in the world, but if you aren't ready mentally, then you will not play," head coach Mike Tice said. "He has made some strides in the past week or so, but he has to keep learning and growing. He is learning to pick up his blocks. The biggest challenge he has had is in the blocking assignments that our running backs are responsible for."

Over the past 10 days, Smith has consistently improved. Looking more comfortable running the ball, he has shown some of the explosiveness the team expected from him. While he has improved in the blocking assignments, Smith has caught the eye of a veteran player on the Vikings squad.

"The rook (Smith) has come in, been pretty quiet, and has done all that has been asked by the coaching staff, from what I can see. He brings an element of quickness and elusiveness to the running game that we have expected to miss with (Michael) Bennett being pretty much lost for the season," the veteran said. "He has some serious work to do, though, to get (Mike Tice) coach to put him in the starting lineup. With the way that we throw the football, a running back could get (Daunte) Culpepper killed if he doesn't pickup his assignment.

"He (Smith) has come a long way in two weeks. Just imagine how good he could look by the end of training camp."

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