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Updated: August 16th, 2012 3:18pm
Zulgad: Harrison Smith brings much-needed attitude to safety position

Zulgad: Harrison Smith brings much-needed attitude to safety position

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Vikings are hoping that Harrison Smith one day becomes a vocal leader on their defense. A guy who takes charge in tough situations and demands respect and accountability from his teammates.

But that day has not arrived.

Smith seemed to be smart enough to recognize that after being taken with the 29th pick in the first round of last April's draft, he would be best served to be seen and not often heard in his first professional training camp.

But there is a difference between being a respectful rookie and being a pushover and the young safety realized that, too.

So when wide receiver Percy Harvin caught a touchdown pass during an Aug. 7 practice in Mankato and stood over the rookie, Smith appeared to tell Harvin what he could do with his catch.

This didn't sit well with Harvin and teammates had to intervene.

The following day, Harvin caught a pass on a short route from Christian Ponder, turned upfield and ran right into Smith. Harvin continued to try to run, Smith didn't let up and again the two got into it. This time Harvin looked as if he was going to throw the ball at Smith, and Harvin's fellow receiver Jerome Simpson ran over and gave Smith a push.

Smith did not back down one bit and this time several teammates had to help break it up.

Asked if he was making a point by standing his ground, Smith said, "I don't really think that really applies to coming in here. I just think that applies to life, so I don't think I was, like, standing my ground. I think it's just football. That stuff happens."

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and defensive coordinator Alan Williams had to be thrilled with both Smith's actions and his response to the situation.

"I love that," Williams said of Smith's willingness to mix things up. "You want your safeties to be quarterbacks and smart but you want some nastiness to them too, and he has that."

To this day, the lasting impression from the Vikings' 2010 training camp is of second-round pick Toby Gerhart being abused by veterans on the defensive side of the ball. Near the end of camp, Gerhart seemed to have finally had enough.

However, he would have won far more points by making it clear that the first time he absorbed an extra hit also would be the last.

Smith made that exact statement in his dealings with Harvin, which served as a breath of fresh air to the Vikings for several reasons.

Smith, who will make his first start of the preseason on Friday against Buffalo at the Metrodome, comes to the Vikings with a definite no-nonsense attitude and that's a good thing.

The Vikings had high hopes for safety Tyrell Johnson when they selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft. That was the Vikings' top selection that season - they traded their first-round choice to Kansas City in the Jared Allen trade - and Johnson started the first seven games in place of the injured Madieu Williams.

Johnson played in all 16 games that season and started all 15 games in which he played in 2009 as the Vikings made a run to the NFC title game.

He would start only five games the following two years and signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins during the offseason. There is no question that Johnson's tenure in Minnesota was a disappointment.

He had some talent, but the issue was greater than that. He never seemed to have a real passion to play football and certainly did not carry the mean streak that you want to see from a safety.

If anything, Johnson was too nice of guy and too respectful to be a defensive back in a league where being brash and playing with attitude is essential.

No reporter who interviewed Smith in Mankato is going to come away saying the kid might be too nice. And there is nothing wrong with that. In this case, that's a good thing.

Johnson isn't the only safety the Vikings have employed in recent seasons that seemed to lack the fire that Smith already showed in Mankato.

Madieu Williams signed a six-year, $33 million contract in February 2008 that at the time made him one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL. However, in training camp that year he suffered a serious neck injury and was never the same after that. He was finally cut in July 2011.

The Vikings began camp this season with Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond working as their first-team safeties. Raymond was a sixth-round pick in 2011 and the Vikings appear to be high on him. Sanford was a seventh-round pick in 2009 and while he started 15 games last season the decision has been made that Smith and Raymond will open with the first-team on Friday.

Sanford, who is 5-10, 200 pounds, loves to hit and talk trash but he appears best suited to serve in a backup role at safety and play on all the special-teams units.

The 6-foot-2, 214-pound Smith, meanwhile, is expected to be a starting safety for the Vikings for many years to come. General manager Rick Spielman traded back into the first round to take the Notre Dame product and the assumption from the moment the selection was made was that Smith would be starting the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against Jacksonville.

That expectation hasn't changed.

Smith, who started 47 of 51 games for the Irish, is the only player in school history to register more than 200 tackles (309), 15 tackles for a loss (18½) and 15 pass breakups (28) in a career.

Coach Brian Kelly thought enough of Smith that he was named the Irish's lone captain in 2011. That has only happened four times in the past 40 years at Notre Dame.

Alan Williams appeared to like what he saw of Smith last Friday in the Vikings' 17-6 loss at San Francisco in their preseason opener.

"He played well, the game wasn't too big for him," Williams said. "He looked like he belonged out there. Again, we want to see that same thing. Can he get lined up, can he communicate to the defense, can he operate within the defense and can he do that on a consistent basis? When a play comes at him can he make the play?"

The answer to all of those questions is expected to be a resounding, "Yes."

And if Smith's play comes with a mean streak that causes opponents to think twice about going over the middle or results in a bit of in-game intimidation. Well, that won't hurt either. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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