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In Session: Summer School with TE Irv Smith, Jr.


Irv Smith, Jr., went back to school this summer.

No, Smith wasn't on campus at the University of Alabama. Instead, the Vikings tight end was a pupil at Tight End University.

The two-day session, which took place in Nashville, Tennessee, in late June. The meetup was spearheaded by two of the league's top tight ends: Kansas City's Travis Kelce and San Francisco's George Kittle.

Smith said an invite to TE U from Kittle popped up in his Instagram messages a few weeks before, and he was more than happy to accept.

"I heard they were doing something, and me and Kittle have a pretty cool relationship," Smith said. "He kind of let me know before, and he said they couldn't wait to have me there to be part of something special."

More than 40 NFL tight ends converged on the summit that honed in on route-running technique, classroom work and on-field demonstrations.

Kelce, perhaps the league's best receiving tight end, could be seen on social media showing the attendees how to firmly plant a foot in the ground and explode out of a route.

"He's definitely animated, a lot of energy," Smith said of Kelce, who has compiled five straight 1,000-yard seasons. "It was great vibes out there. Everybody was really selfless and just wanted to have fun."

Smith also took plenty away from Kittle, who has become a force through the air and as a blocker in San Francisco's offense over the past four seasons. Kittle, of course, operates in Kyle Shanahan's offensive scheme that has some similarities to what Smith and the Vikings run in Minnesota.

"We pick each other's brains, for sure. He's had a lot of success in this league in similar offenses," Smith said of Kittle. "Just going back and forth, our favorite plays and our favorite routes and what we like to run. 'How do you get open on this play, against a certain defense when they show this look? How do you go about it?'

"Just cool little things like that because at Tight End U, it was all tight ends. We do a lot of the same things," Smith added. "It's not like it's a whole bunch of receivers and linemen and things like that. It's our position. It was super cool having everybody there and learning from each other."

Smith said he relished the generosity of the other players he spent time with.

"It was really cool just being around a group of guys that all play the same position but are all selfless players," Smith said. "Talking about the importance of the position, different offensive guys do different things … some guys are more blockers and some guys are more receivers. Just getting a true sense of the success other guys have had, plus the success that I've had, and kind of talk about that and build on that so we all be the best versions of ourselves."

But make no mistake about it, Smith wasn't there just to learn. He had plenty of tips and tricks to pass along, too.

"Being with a group of guys like that, at the end of the day we're all competitors, so we wanted to show our own abilities and what we can do out there," Smith said. "It was just cool watching some of the best at the position. But for myself, I feel like I have the ability and a chance to also be counted up with those guys."

As Smith enters Year 3 in Purple, many expect him to have a breakout season in 2021.

He will certainly have the opportunity to do so now that he is firmly entrenched as the Vikings No. 1 tight end. (Veteran Kyle Rudolph, who spent 10 years with the Vikings, is now with the Giants).

And Smith's first chance to show the league who he is comes in the Vikings preseason opener against the Broncos, a team that will always provide a special memory for the tight end.

Back in the 2019 season, Smith and his teammates stunningly trailed 20-0 at halftime of their Week 11 game against Denver at U.S. Bank Stadium.

It was Smith, then only a rookie, who provided a jolt of energy with a 10-yard touchdown catch from Kirk Cousins early in the third quarter to finally get the Vikings on the board.

His first career score prompted a small celebration and ignited a thrilling comeback.

"We were down by three scores … Kirk delivered the ball and I ran a post route, caught it in the back of the end zone," Smith said. "It kind of brought us back and brought a big spark to the whole stadium and the whole energy of the team.

"It was awesome with my first touchdown being such a key play to getting us a victory," Smith added. "And it really helped in leading us to the playoffs."

Smith recently reflected on how far he has grown from that moment 21 months ago to where he is now.

"I just try to take one day at a time. Each day and each practice, that's a new day," Smith explained. "That's the beauty of [training] camp. Let's say you had a great practice today, you can't come back the next day and practice terrible.

"You have to be where your feet are but also have fun," Smith added. "Football is a child's game and is something that we love to do."

Perhaps no player on the Vikings roster has stacked more strong days of camp together than Smith, who has stood out nearly every day with his ability to stretch the field, move the chains or find the end zone.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has noticed, whether that's Smith hauling in a one-handed score near the goal line or scooting down the field for a big chunk of yards to move the chains on third-and-long.

"He looks a little bit quicker and faster to me — running routes a little bit faster, setting guys up a little bit better, as well," Zimmer said. "He's very confident; he's catching the ball really well."

Other Vikings players and coaches have been impressed, too. That includes Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, who shook his head a bit when asked about the difficulties of trying to keep up with Smith all over the field.

"It's tough, man. He's a great player. He's grown a lot from last year and the year before that," Barr said. "I think he's going to have a huge role this year. Just really excited to watch him.

"It makes us better as defenders trying to cover him," Barr added. "He can do so many different things and line up in so many different areas. He's a really good guy and a really good player."

View the best photos of Vikings TE Irv Smith Jr. from the 2020 season.

Smith will be counted on to lead his position group in his third NFL season. He'll do so with a strong mentality of what it takes — Smith's father, Irv, was the 20th overall pick of the 1993 NFL Draft by New Orleans and played seven seasons in the league.

But he'll also be viewed as an integral part of the offense at the age of 23. The youngest player taken in the first two rounds of his draft class, Smith just celebrated his 23rd birthday on Aug. 9.

"We ask the guys to lead with production. That's how you're going to be a leader on the team," Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak said of the team's approach. "We don't care what you say. We care about how you act and what you do on the field. Irv has produced since he's been here."

Fellow tight end Tyler Conklin has seen Smith grow on and off the field in recent seasons. Conklin noted that Smith has never been as positioned for a potentially big season as he is now.

"I think the big thing for just the tight end position in general – and I think Irv would probably agree with this – is we just do so much on the field, whether it's the run game or the pass game or pass protection," Conklin said. "Just becoming more comfortable with the playbook and learning how the game is played and learning all these different pieces. I think that's how he's probably grown the most.

"I think that allows you to be more sure of yourself, which allows you to play at full speed. He's definitely grown tremendously, and he's a heck of a tight end. The big thing for Irv is he leads by example," Conklin added. "He practices his butt off, he works his butt off, and he leads by doing things the right way and practicing and competing as hard as he does. I think that just rubs off on other people around him and our room specifically."

Through two seasons, Smith has compiled 66 catches for 676 yards and seven scores in 29 games.

And as the regular season looms, few would be surprised if Smith's production as a receiving target takes a big leap.

Now viewed as the prototype NFL tight end with a blend of size (he is 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds), athleticism and strength as a blocker, many expect Smith to become a household name in the coming months.

Not that the easygoing and affable Smith has his sights set on a bevy of personal accolades.

Even with his role about to take off, Smith will keep his lessons from summer school close.

"My dream season? Win the Super Bowl. That's the main goal," Smith said. "If we do that, my personal goals will take care of themselves.

"I want to show that tight ends are some of the most athletic players on the field. I feel like we are weapons out there," Smith added. "We're not just receivers and we're not just blockers … we're out there and they put us all over the field — out wide, in the slot, in the backfield, with our hand in the dirt. That's something that no other position does, so I feel like it's special and something we take a lot of pride in."