By Lindsey Young, For Vikings.com
Harrison Smith takes great pride in his purple and white No. 22 jersey because he knows what Hall of Fame Paul Krause accomplished while wearing the number.
The two 22s met for the first time at Winter Park during Homecoming weekend, where they exchanged stories and questions and shared a mutual respect.
"He's a great kid, and he's a great football player," Krause said of Smith. "He has a nose for the football. I don't care how fast you are or whatever you do. If you're around the football like he is — that tells me that he's got what it takes to be a great football player."
For Smith, there could be no higher praise.
"I had wanted to meet [Krause] since I came to Minnesota," Smith said. "I'm lucky enough to wear his number. When I met him, I was like, 'This is the real twenty-two.' "
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Krause played in Minnesota from 1968-1979, after spending four seasons with the Redskins. As a rookie, he led the league with 12 interceptions. Krause made eight trips to the Pro Bowl, was an eight-time All-Pro selection and still holds the NFL record for career interceptions with 81. In 1998, Krause was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While Smith may have a ways to go before he hopes to catch Krause, he's making his own mark and is currently ranked as the top-performing safety in the league according to analytics site Pro Football Focus. Some days, however, he will tell you it feels surreal that he's even at this level.
"It sounds weird, but I've played a few years now and not really, fully grasped that I was in the NFL," Smith said, laughing.
Like many high school kids, Smith started dreaming big when he found himself being recruited for college; but after getting to Notre Dame, he removed that from his mind and focused solely on improving as a football player each and every day.
"I think that made me better — just playing every down like it's my last," he said. "I still try to play that way. There's really no 'I'm here in the NFL' moment. I mean, I still think it's crazy sometimes."
Smith may occasionally forget the caliber he's at, but his opponents certainly do not. When offenses take the field against Minnesota, they view Smith as a main threat on defense — and rightly so. Over just four games, the 26-year-old has 36 tackles (23 solo) by Vikings coaches' tally, an interception and a forced fumble. Pro Football Focus gives Smith a score of 11.1 (on a scale where 0 is the baseline), an easy four points over Will Hill, who is rated second-highest.
During the 2014 season, Smith was the only player in the NFL to record three or more interceptions (he snagged a team-high five) and at least 3.0 sacks. He became just the fourth defensive back in Vikings history to finish a single season with that combination, joining Joey Browner (1990), Robert Griffith (1999) and Brian Williams (2003).
Interestingly, Smith did not always play safety. In high school he played both sides of the ball, most often alternating between running back and corner back. At Notre Dame, he started out playing linebacker.
"But I always felt like I was a safety," Smith said. "Even in high school, the safeties were the guys I watched […] their physicality, their play-making ability, being able to impact a game in so many ways. That's just kind of always what I felt myself as. But playing other positions has added to a better understanding of the game; it gives you experience, seeing things from different angles."
Smith certainly picked the right position. In his fourth season, he is well on his way to being recognized for years to come as one of the NFL's best. After playing 44 games, Smith has 11 interceptions in the books, coming in second only to former Baltimore safety Ed Reed among safeties that have entered the league since 2001. After the same number of games, Seattle's Earl Thomas had nine interceptions, while Troy Polamalu and Sean Taylor had seven. In solo tackles, Smith tops the group with 204; the next closest is Taylor, who tallied 183.
While Smith is not one to get wrapped up in media hype or statistics, his performance on the field speaks for itself—and at the end of the day, that's all that matters.
"The coaches are the ones telling me if I'm playing well," Smith said. "I just try to do what they want, and I think all of that puts me in the best position to make plays and to make the Vikings successful. It's not an 'I need to make sure people know I'm good' mindset, because that's not substantial. That's not real. It's just opinions. I just go after the facts."
Smith's coaches play a significant role in his accomplishments, and he feels grateful to have not only a recognized position coach in Jerry Gray but also to be working under a head coach in Mike Zimmer with such a rich defensive background.
"Speaking on behalf of the DBs, it's great knowing that [Zimmer] is always going to have his eye out for us," Smith said. "[Gray] is always obviously getting us coached up, but knowing that we have another pair of eyes on us, and it's the head man, I think that keeps everybody on their toes. It keeps us trying to get better each day."
Moving forward, having a coach like Zimmer and a mentor like Krause only further motivates Smith to continue developing as a player and contributing to the Vikings' defense. The 2015 season has already offered its ups and downs, but Smith feels confident in where the team is headed and how his unit is working together.
"That [chemistry] grows as we play more and more reps together, have more game experience," Smith said. "You have to trust each other and rely on each other, and that's something that we're doing more and more."
Smith ultimately strives to be the type of safety that can not only perform at a high level but can lead his teammates on the field as well. For him, it's not about his personal stats column but about the difference he can make to help the Vikings succeed; an alum of Krause's caliber supporting him only adds to the equation.
The former safety does not stay visit Winter Park often, and he said he rarely seeks out current players. Krause sees something special in Smith, however, that made him change his mind.
Smith certainly plans to take Krause up on the offer of support.
"It keeps me motivated, knowing a guy like him is watching me. I don't know if I'm quite living up to his number, but if I can try to, I'll keep trying to do that," Smith promised. "Pretty much anything I can learn from him, listen to him — whether it's on the field or off the field — I will. He has a ton of experience and a ton of success."