EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Seeing Harrison Smith roam the middle of the field is a welcome sight for the Minnesota Vikings after Smith’s sophomore season was interrupted by a debilitating toe injury.
Smith gives coach Mike Zimmer a playmaker in the secondary to build around in Minnesota’s new defense. Smith, 25, is a budding star, a first-round draft pick who has demonstrated an ability to be a big hitter and be in the right place at the right time.
Now the new coaching staff is trying to determine who will line up next to Smith.
Jamarca Sanford has been Smith’s partner for much of the past two seasons. But he’s been held out of organized team activities because of a pulled muscle. In Sanford’s place, coaches have rotated players throughout the three weeks of OTA practices with Robert Blanton, Kurt Coleman, Mistral Raymond, Antone Exum and Brandan Bishop all vying for time at safety. Andrew Sendejo has also missed time after having a procedure done for a back injury.
"Right now there’s nothing set, but coaches want to see everybody against different offenses, different wide receivers, QBs — everyone’s getting a fair shot," said Coleman, who signed with the Vikings as a free agent in April. "And that’s a great thing about what we’ve got going. Everyone’s got to compete for their spot. So, if you’re afraid of competition, this could break you. But I think what it’s going to do for this team is make us the best team that we can be, and we’re going to put together the best 53-man roster."
Smith is the rock. A potential Pro Bowl player entering his third season after Minnesota made one of its first-round draft maneuvers to secure the former Notre Dame safety in 2012. In his rookie season he had 104 tackles and three interceptions — two which he returned for touchdowns.
Coaches want to see who works well with Smith. Blanton, Smith’s college teammate, has received a lot of the work with the first-team defense, at least what can be construed as such from summer practices. In reality, coaches have mixed and matched a lot of different players at safety and cornerback, trying different combinations as they look to remake the secondary.
"Harrison’s a smart guy," Zimmer said. "Kurt Coleman’s doing a good job. Robert Blanton’s doing a good job. So we’ve got a lot of guys who are continually working at those spots and we’re just trying to, honestly, get them in the right position where we can get them to go play."
Thursday’s practice was an important one in the coach’s eyes, as the team tried to play with a quicker pace and see how players responded to different situations, an important aspect for the safeties in particular.
"It’s hard to judge it right now," Zimmer said of the safeties. "I think we’ll get a little bit better feel of how it goes the more of this stuff (that we do) like we did today, where the coaches aren’t out there helping them, ‘Hey, move this way, move that way. Line up here, line up there.’ When all the things happen and they have to make adjustments and checks because those guys are a lot like the quarterbacks for the defense when they get back there."
Blanton was a cornerback at Notre Dame who was switched to safety by Minnesota’s previous coaching staff. Blanton played sparingly as a rookie and mostly on special teams. In his second season, Blanton received more time, partially because of Smith’s injury, and he was even used as a slot cornerback when the Vikings were pressed into digging deep because of injuries.
General manager Rick Spielman said during the draft that Zimmer is looking for a safety with coverage ability. Blanton, who had 60 tackles last season but is still looking for his first NFL interception, would seem to fit the description.
"I enjoy covering, love playing man," Blanton said, later adding, "I try to pride myself on being a guy that can do multiple things. The more you can do, the better."
Looking for a safety with coverage ability, Spielman drafted Antone Exum out of Virginia Tech in May. Exum played safety and cornerback in college.
"The transition from him being a corner to a safety, it’s not an easy transition all the time," Zimmer said last week of Exum. "You expect those little bumps in the road. Right now he’s plateaued a little bit. He’s trying to work his way back to where he was. The more stuff you get in and the more stuff the offense has, it gets a little more complicated. He’s smart enough to do it, it’s just going to take him more reps to get him where he needs to be."
Coleman saw the potential in Zimmer’s defense and the opportunity to possibly earn an important role when he signed with Minnesota, reportedly eschewing other offers.
"I felt very comfortable in what we were doing and the schemes that he’s asking the safeties to play," Coleman said. "I think Coach is really building something special. I want to be a part of this. I want to do this for the long-term, and this was the best opportunity for me."
Coleman spent two years mostly as a starter in Philadelphia before playing in 15 games as a reserve last year. He has seven interceptions in four NFL seasons and had a career-high 93 tackles in 2012.
Coleman feels he’s fitting in well in his first two months with the Vikings and when given the chance to step forward in his rotation and impress the coaches.
"I haven’t been cussed out a lot, so I think that’s a good sign," Coleman joked. "I’m just growing and learning. I’m just trying to take as much knowledge as I can from him. He’s wise, and for me, I’m just trying to soak it all in. I’ve played the game for a while but I can never stop learning, understanding and improving."