By Chad Courrier firstname.lastname@example.org
The Mankato Free Press
---- — MANKATO — Harrison Smith's rookie season was marked by hard-hitting play at safety, three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.
His intense style gave the secondary a big boost. It also yielded one ejection and a $21,000 fine.
But Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said that during those 17 games, he never saw his young safety back down from the pressure of being a starter on a playoff team.
"He wasn't afraid to take chances, which allowed him to make some plays," Frazier said. "You don't always see that in rookies."
Smith is looking to build on an impactful rookie season. He started all 16 regular-season games and the playoff loss at Green Bay, making 86 solo tackles and 51 assists. He had three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.
Smith did have his struggles. He was ejected from one game for touching an official and was fined for a horse-collar tackle in another game. But the positives far outweighed the negatives, and he opens training camp as a clear starter and emerging leader.
"I really think that playing in all 16 (regular-season) games was a great accomplishment," Smith said. "You have your highs and lows, and it's such a long season, coming in from college."
Smith was drafted late in the first round as the Vikings traded up to the 29th position, trying to solidify a position that they have been searching for a long-term answer for since Darren Sharper left in 2008. Frazier said he was impressed with Smith's poise and intelligence as he learned on the job, making mistakes and the corresponding corrections.
"He's a not a rah-rah player, but he made plays that kind of lifted our entire defense," Frazier said. "He was security blanket for our defense. He gave us something that we were lacking and something that we needed."
Smith said that reviewing his rookie season, too much was made of playing aggressively or finding the balance between hustle and intimidation.
"As long as you're doing your job, everything works out," he said.
Smith and safety Jamarca Sanford started the last 14 games together, building chemistry between two of the secondary's young leaders. It was a relationship that Sanford said was immediate.
"We're two of the same kind of players," Sanford said. "We both love to play in the box. We're guys who like to play real physical."
With the departure of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, the secondary is void of an obvious leader. Sanford is the most experienced player at five seasons, and cornerback Chris Cook has been here four. But given his position, Smith is another person who will be counted on for leadership.
"In my opinion, you can't be a leader without having the respect of all the guys," Smith said. "You can't force it; it has to happen. I look forward to working on that and getting better at it."