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Introducing the Tennesota Vikings

EAGAN, Minn. — It was after a recent practice, autograph session with fans and interview on NFL Network when Harrison Smith was asked about having so many teammates who also hail from Tennessee.

He wasn't stumped, per se. He just needed a moment, and another, to make his way through the roster.

"Who else?" Then, "There's a fifth?"

Not all years have had this many names to rattle off, but the current roster includes five who were born in Tennessee.

"There's still not a ton [of NFL players] from East Tennessee," Smith said. "Nashville is kind of the hotspot nowadays and will probably be more and more so now with as many people moving there and all the high schools they've got over there. It's pretty big-time now."

Joejuan Williams, Theo Jackson and Ty Chandler are all from the Nashville area, and Jaylin Williams is from Memphis.

Even though Jackson had previous familiarity with Joejuan Williams dating back to high school, and visited the University of Tennessee at the same time as Chandler (who transferred to North Carolina in 2021), he appreciates the rarity of this particular opportunity.

"It gives you a sense of home, a little bit, because that really does not happen a lot in the NFL," said Jackson, a 2022 sixth-round pick by his hometown Titans. "Probably college, but not really in the NFL. It gives you a sense of how far the city is coming with putting guys into the league, so it's really a great thing in my eyes."

Curvy miles — nearly 200 — wind and climb from Nashville to Knoxville. A straighter 200 miles make their way downhill from Nashville to Memphis on I-40. That kind of separation means there are distinguished differences in locales and interests.

Smith, for instance, paid more attention to the Tennessee Volunteers than the NFL. He kept tabs on where Vols players landed in the NFL before the state's franchise arrived. He observed as the Oilers moved from Houston to Memphis to Nashville and rebranded as the Titans in 1999.

"I watched the Music City Miracle year because they were good, and it's easy to be a fan of good teams," Smith said. "I remember watching that play because I think Peerless Price was on the Bills and I was a big fan of his when he was in college."

Joejuan Williams was a freshman when Jalen Ramsey was a senior at a rival high school.

"He was very inspirational," he said. "Seeing him go out to play at the Rivals 5-Star Challenge and the Nike Opening inspired me to do the same. He got to college, balled out in college and got to the NFL, got drafted and continued to inspire me to do the same thing.

"That wasn't my prime motivation, but it was inspiring to see him at the end of the day, especially being right down the street from where I'm at," he continued. "Richard Sherman, at that time, when I got to high school, he started really blowing up as a big corner. That was inspiring to watch. I loved watching those LOB (Legion of Boom) days. It was dope."

When told the younger Tennessee natives refer to Smith as the "OG" from Tennessee, he calmly said, "I don't know about that."

"You know who is from Tennessee? Patrick Willis, Michael Oher, Jason Witten," Smith said, pointing to players who had been drafted prior to his own selection in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

Joejuan Williams included Smith, however, in a wave of players he watched.

"I feel like Tennessee has a lot of great athletes from my era and before that, from the Jalen Ramseys and Golden Tates, Harrison Smiths, and it's just good to see them out there and put them on a map," he said.

Jaylin Williams directed his attention more toward basketball, but the 2007 Patriots that seemed to score as frequently as some hoops squads provided his appreciation for Randy Moss. Now, he's suiting up for Moss' first franchise and recorded an interception at Seattle in his NFL debut.

"I feel like we have a good connection, so everybody is coming together, especially with a vet like Harry," Jaylin Williams said. "He's a good person to learn from and take notes from, so that's what I'm trying to do."

Jackson said he's picking Smith's brain every day.

"In the meeting room, I sit right next to him, so I've learned a lot from him, little vet moves here and there: 'How does he play this, how does he play that?' It's so helpful having him in the room," Jackson said.

Jackson drove to pressure a pass and cause a deflection that Jaylin Williams snagged and returned impressively during the first night practice of this year's camp.

"Understanding where your help is, and he was there to help me, so I appreciate that," Jaylin Williams said.

Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores has known of Smith from the early years and is enjoying working with him on the field, as well as the added bonuses Smith provides in meeting rooms to help teach Minnesota's new system.

Flores said Smith can incorporate his understanding of the game — from protections, coverage and disguise to blitz, coverage and tackling techniques.

"And he's still a student of the game. So I think he's a great leader by example, just the way he works, the way he takes notes, the questions he asks," Flores said. "I know oftentimes he's asking questions for some other young guy who doesn't want to say it in front of the room, and that in itself is something I appreciate."

Asked about that explanation, Smith said, "Yeah, I didn't know if anyone ever picked up on that, but as I've gotten older, sometimes there's little scenarios where it's nice to hear them out loud because I know if there's any hesitation in my mind, I'm sure some other guys don't know exactly what's going on."

"So I'll ask questions," he continued. "Sometimes I don't know the answer, sometimes I do, but they're normally, maybe something happened to me in that scenario and it's kind of a rare incidence, but we don't really go over it because you can't go over everything. Maybe I'll just bring that up.

"I also don't want to always act like I know what's going on because I don't," Smith added. "It also makes other guys feel comfortable in asking questions because if you get somewhere new, you don't want to sound stupid in front of other guys or coaches, but that's not really how it is. All that matters is you know what you are doing, so if you need to ask questions now — I do believe there are stupid questions. If you're not paying attention and just asking questions, that's on you. If you're adding to the conversation, the more of that the better because we're all going to understand more."

After that same practice, Chandler was doing work with backup quarterback Nick Mullens. He'd hear the call by the quarterback and go through his assignments.

Smith, the 2006 Class 3A Tennessee Mr. Football Back of the Year, walked by Chandler, the 2015 and 2016 Division II AA Mr. Football Back of the Year, and offered a fist bump.

"It's a blessing and a dream come true," Chandler said of teaming with so many from his home state. "We all dreamed of this moment, so being able to come together … it's a cool feeling.

"The OG, man," he said specifically of Smith. "I've asked him questions about being back home, just conversations and that family feel. It's nothing but love, and I enjoy it."

Update: A sixth Tennesota Viking joined the mix after this story was published. Minnesota on Thursday signed running back Aaron Dykes, who is from Knoxville and played college football at Richmond.