LB Smith Hoping To Break Away From Injury Slump

Raonall Smith has been the hard-luck linebacker of the Vikings for the last three years. Before he suffered a series of concussions last season, he was starting to penetrate the starting lineup. Now, he talks about the concussions and his aspirations for the 2005 season.

Raonall Smith's Vikings biography belongs in the training room as much as it belongs in the defensive coordinator's office. His variety of ailments in the three years he has been with the Vikings has been as frustrating for him as it has for Vikings fans waiting for him to break out and prove he was deserving of a second-round draft choice in 2002.

In 2002, he was placed on injured reserve after the first game of the season because of a shoulder injury.

Strike one.

In 2003, Smith played in seven games on special teams, but was also inactive for seven games because of a lingering hamstring injury.

Strike two.

In 2004, he finally looked poised for that breakout season. His time on the sidelines in previous seasons gave him an opportunity to learn, and once he got on the field with any regularity his athletic talents began to shine.

After Dontarrious Thomas, last year's second-round linebacker, struggled to assume the starting role, Smith moved into position. He made his first professional start at weakside linebacker in an overtime win at Houston on Oct 10. One week later, he played extensively, then started again on Oct. 24, his best game as a pro, notching an interception and having nine tackles.

Smith looked like he was on his way to staying in the ballgame, but he suffered the first of two concussions.

Strike three, but still he's not out of the game.

"The first one I got knocked and hit my head on the back of the turf, got up a little dizzy and they took me out right away," Smith said. "My second (suffered two weeks later) kind of accumulated on top of my first one. I never really recovered from my first one, so every hit I took kind of compounded on top of the first one."

They put him through a series of tests.

"One of them, they make you memorize a series of random words and you have to say them forwards and backwards, things like that," he said. "And then they time you and how many you remember out of maybe 20 words. You've got to remember as many as you possibly can. It's difficult, especially when you're not thinking straight."

Smith did a baseline test before the season. After his first concussion, he took the test to see how closely the results matched to his pre-concussion test. After his second concussion, he went to the University of Pittsburgh medical center to conduct further tests.

Now that he's had time to recuperate, he's been told he'll be fine and said he's at no greater risk for another concussion.

After the third strike in his injury battle, Smith is back in the batter's box, looking to get on base with the Vikings once again.

"We've got a long way to go until training camp. I need to show the coaches I'm fully recovered and see what they want to do, where they want to put me in and however I fit," he said.

"It's frustrating, but I put it all behind me. I just came back a little too early. I'm good to go now, so I feel good about it."

In fact, he felt good about it shortly after he was placed on injured reserve last year. But the Vikings were getting desperate at linebacker and Smith became the victim of a roster numbers game.

"They cleared me a couple days after I got put on IR. They just needed a spot because they were going to the playoffs and they weren't sure about my head," he said. "It was a little frustrating, but they had to do what's best for the team."

He knows he has been tortured by his injuries and admits it seems like he is the bad-luck linebacker.

"That's what it looks like, sure. I feel lucky that I'm in the NFL. As far as injuries, there is a little bit of bad luck, but injuries are a part of it," he said.

After blowing out his shoulder in his rookie season, followed by hamstring problems, followed by his concussions, one has to wonder: Where would he be without the injuries?

"Who knows? Looking on the bright side, hopefully I'd have started a lot more and be in a real productive career. I've shown that when I am healthy I can play. I prefer not to dwell on the past and look at the future," he said.

While the future looks bright for the Vikings, Smith will have better talent in front of him as he tries to play his way back into a productive role. The Vikings made a number of offseason moves on defense, including two at linebacker that will affect Smith's status.

He played with Napoleon Harris at the Senior Bowl and sees him as a linebacker with a good size-speed ratio. Sam Cowart has a good grasp of what defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell tries to do, Smith said, and everybody else is just trying to follow suit and make plays.

"I think it's just good for our defense in general to have an elder statesman in the group," Smith said of Cowart.

That could help as players all around the defense try to adjust playing with each other, just like Vikings defenders last year adjusted to their third defensive coordinator in as many years.

Smith said having Cottrell back for a second consecutive season should help the current cast improve on last year's 28th-place ranking on defense.

"I just think it was a new defense. It was my third defense in three years. It takes some time for everything to come full circle," Smith said. "There's a learning curve and some people maybe just had too much on their plate, trying to grasp everything right away."

For Smith, that means letting go of the trainer's table and grasping a role on the playing field – something he certainly has the talent to do, if only his body would permit.

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