Minnesota Vikings veteran linebacker Lemanski Hall could stack the deck if he wanted to. But he won't.
With rookie Raonall Smith listed at weakside linebacker right behind Hall on the preseason depth chart, Hall can hear the footsteps of the Vikings' 2002 second-round draft pick. In addition to the footsteps that may replace him as a starter some day — perhaps sooner than later — Hall also hears questions.
Uncertainty over defensive sets, signals and assignments has caused Smith to look to Hall. As an on-the-job instructor, Hall finds himself in a minority. He, defensive tackle Chris Hovan and cornerback Eric Kelly will most likely be the only returning defensive starters from a 2001 unit that was among the league's worst in many defensive categories.
Because of Hall's experience, Smith will be leaning on him (when he isn't summoning linebackers coach Brian Baker) for advice, tips, helpful hints … anything that will help the rookie from Washington State get better, faster.
"I'm sure they don't tell you everything they know," Smith said. "Lemanski and all the other vets have taken us under their wings and helped us out as much as they can. They have a job to fill, too. I guess it wouldn't be wise on their part to tell us everything they knew because they're trying to have a job, too. But they've definitely been a help with our progress."
Hall knows that as a veteran, he has a responsibility to the team. Even though both players are ultimately vying for the same position — starting weakside linebacker — Hall is going to do what he can to ease Smith's transition from college to the NFL.
"My job is to really look out for Smitty," Hall said. "I have a family to feed so I have to take care of my job, but if Smitty has a question for me or if I see him make a mistake, naturally I'm going to come over there and say, ‘You didn't do this right, or ‘You didn't do that right.' That's part of being a veteran player. He's the future. I can't play this game forever."
At 6-foot-2, 244 pounds, Smith brings size and speed to the field when he plays. The draft report on Smith said that speed was never an issue. He could run, showed terrific range and had a knack of being where the ball was — key ingredients for linebackers. But naturally, learning the Vikings defensive system that focuses on shooting gaps will take time for Smith.
"He can run, he's big and he has tremendous feet," Baker said. "He's just not the total player. There's still some fine-tuning to do in his linebacker technique where he can get better."
Baker's analysis is hardly news to Smith.
"I need to improve a lot. I'm nowhere near where I want to be," Smith said. "I've improved where I was when I started, but I have a long way to go in my mind. I know I can play physically, that's not the hard part. It's the mental part of knowing where I need to be at the right time and who to help out and who not to help out and just knowing my assignments and fulfilling them."
Second-year linebacker Patrick Chukwurah will most likely be the Vikings starter on the strong side. Henri Crockett, who spent five years playing for Atlanta, will start at middle linebacker. Hall is moving from the strong side to the weak side and Smith is listed right behind Hall. Rookie Nick Rogers is the initial backup for Crockett, and Vikings veteran Jim Nelson is Chukwurah's backup.
Even though the Vikings became younger in the offseason, there still are some veterans the younger players can pattern themselves after. In addition to Hall, Crockett and Nelson also possess experience. But Chukwurah, Smith and Rogers — one-half of the Vikings' top six linebackers — possess a combined total of one year of NFL experience.
"I've been told the whole time to emulate yourself after veterans," Smith said. "I did that in high school, college and now. With a lot of young guys around — we've only got three or four seasoned vets on the linebacking corps — so it's hard to watch because they're only out there for so many plays. It's kind of hard to get mental reps from those guys. If we'd have a few more vets it would be a little easier."
Hall, who had a career-high 74 tackles last season, is trying to do his part.
"It's a big role," Hall said. "(Defensive coordinator) Willie Shaw talks about leaders a lot. There are different forms of leaders. I'm not a vocal leader. My job is to try to lead by example."
How long it will take for the linebackers to jell — not only with each other, but the rest of the defense — is unknown.
"Defensively, it starts with communication," Baker said. "If we're on the same page with the communication part of it, then we can execute. That's why we have to have good communication — it's a new group."
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