MANKATO, Minn. — Rookie safety Harrison Smith wasn’t handed a starting spot by the Minnesota Vikings entering training camp despite being the 29th overall pick in April’s draft and a talented player at a position of need.
Smith is having to earn his way in his first NFL training camp and he’s showing he’s not going to back down from the challenge — or his veteran teammates.
The 6-foot-2 safety from Notre Dame has started receiving more snaps with the starting unit in practice this week and has had two run-ins with Minnesota star receiver Percy Harvin. The second one, in Wednesday’s afternoon practice, ended up resulting in the first skirmish of Vikings’ training camp. Smith downplayed the incident and denied he was trying to make a point as a rookie newcomer.
“I don’t really think that implies to coming in here,” Smith said of showing he won’t back down. “I just think that applies to life. I don’t think I was standing my ground. It’s just football. That stuff happens.”
But Smith is also showing he plays the game with an edge. For the second time in two days, Harvin had words with the rookie. The first incident came Tuesday when Harvin beat Smith inside for a touchdown reception and was taken to the ground by Smith during the catch. Harvin, an emotional player in his own right, popped up excitedly and stared at Smith offering a few words.
Tuesday, Harvin caught another pass in the middle and was met by Smith. A skirmish started and receiver Jerome Simpson came in as well, pushing Smith before things could be broken up. Training camp skirmishes are nothing new, but Minnesota had avoided them through a week and a half of practicing in pads in the afternoon heat.
With their first preseason game two days away, it’s not a surprise tempers finally flared.
“It’s the game of football, it’s not really a passive sport,” Smith said. “It’s an aggressive sport played by aggressive people. So, that’s what happens.”
Smith is showing an aggressive side, especially since the pads went on. The Vikings traded back into the first round of April’s draft after taking left tackle Matt Kalil with the No. 4 overall pick. With Smith still on the board at No. 29, Minnesota felt he could be the answer at safety after having several players rotate through the positions in the past few years. Smith was believed to be an all-around safety, able to help in run and pass defense.
Through the first two weeks of training camp, defensive coordinator Alan Williams felt Smith had shown what he can do against the pass. Getting a chance to work with the starting unit more in the past three days, he’s been showing his physical side.
“I saw it in our OTAs and it’s beginning to show up a little bit more with the pads on,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “We need that. We need that from him. We need a physical, tough safety of his size and his range. He seems like a guy who can provide that.”
And a day after commenting about how the players have avoided going after each other, Smith was right in the middle of Wednesday’s skirmish.
“He hasn’t blinked,” Frazier said of Smith earning first-team reps. “He’s kind of fit in. We wanted to see how he’d respond being in there with Kevin (Williams) and those guys, and so far he’s responded well. We’re going to give him some opportunities on Friday night, but he hasn’t shrunk back. He’s stepped up and done well when he’s been with the first team.”
He’s had to earn those first-team snaps, just the way his coaches want and the way Smith expected. Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond ended last season as the starters and had taken the reps with the starting unit for the first two weeks of camp.
Smith is having to prove himself, but Williams likes what he sees in the versatile rookie.
“Right now he is better at everything than I really thought,” Williams said. “He’s a tall guy, and usually tall guys are a little bit leggy and may not be quick-footed. But right now he’s excelling at the pass coverage. We put him on tight end and he’s been extremely effective. We’ll wait to see how he does in the run game, we haven’t had any opportunities, which is one of the things I was talking about in terms of the reps are limited. We have to put him in some other opportunities to see how he supports the run and what he does there. It may be the first preseason game until we really know when everything is live.”
When games go live, it might just fit into Smith’s aggressiveness. He’s been like most rookies at camp, going along quietly, working and learning, until this week, when he’s shown more of an edge in his demeanor.
Working against players like Harvin only fuels Smith.
“He’s an unbelievable athlete, unbelievable player, got a lot of speed, great hands,” Smith said. “Having to go against guys like that and maybe getting beat every now and again, kind of lights a fire that I’ve got to get better and better every day. There’s no better way to do that than going against guys like Percy.”
Smith and the Vikings are ready to go against someone other than teammates too. After two weeks, Minnesota is ready for its first preseason game Friday at San Francisco when Smith can really let loose.
“Definitely, after a while you kind of get sick of competing against each other,” Smith said. “We’re supposed to be teammates. So, you want to hit somebody, but you don’t really have a choice.”