EAGAN, Minn. — It was only eight months ago that Irv Smith, Jr., appeared ready to become a household name.
The Vikings tight end had dominated in training camp, catching everything thrown his way and seemingly finding the end zone at least once a day in practice.
Smith's breakout season never happened, as he tore his meniscus in Minnesota's preseason finale in Kansas City. The injury shelved him — and his potential — for the entire season.
But don't think Smith isn't just as poised to show people what he can do, even if it comes a bit later than anticipated.
"I still have that same [mindset]; in my mind, I've worked so hard throughout my life, so it's not like this is something that we built up last camp," Smith said. "I had a great camp and was looking forward to the season, but that momentum and everything hasn't slowed down.
"I'm very confident once I get back on the field I'm going to be 100 percent, and we're going to keep building on that," Smith added.
The fourth-year tight end was seen Tuesday morning for the first phase of Vikings offseason workouts, but he did the majority of his work on the sideline with a trainer.
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said Tuesday that Smith won't be rushed back into anything. Both the coach and the player said the goal is for Smith to be full-go for training camp in late July.
"I think he's had a great offseason so far, even before coming back here," O'Connell said. "I think he's been right on schedule with everything that [Vikings Executive Director of Player Health & Performance] Tyler [Williams] and the doctors, where they want him to be.
"We're not going to push him this early on in the offseason until we get the green light from the docs, and we'll defer to them and Tyler and [Head Strength and Conditioning Coach] Josh [Hingst] — they're the ones seeing him on a minute-to-minute basis downstairs right now," O'Connell added. "We'll make sure that we've got a great plan for Irv all the way through this entire nine-week program that just puts him in a great position to have a great training camp. That's what I've challenged him to do, is stressing him above the neck – making sure he's learning the system so he's gonna know what to do, where to line up, and then when we start getting those full-speed reps for him will be great. And then on to the competitive reps when training camp comes around."
View exclusive black-and-white images from the first week of voluntary workouts at the TCO Performance Center.
Besides his recovery process, which Smith said took place in both Minnesota and New Orleans, the tight end also provided an update on other topics Tuesday, including just how his injury occurred.
"It was just, like, on a weakside blocking play," Smith said. "And I just felt like my knee kind of buckled a little bit and I really didn't think it was nothing too serious, but it was."
He later went into more detail:
"It was just kind of, like, a freak kind of accident that happened," Smith said. "It happened on one of the first drives I was in the game and I kind of felt it.
"I didn't really think it was too much and we wanted to play it safe and get an MRI the next day, and I found out I had hurt my knee more severe than what we thought," Smith added. "So I had do what was best for myself and kind of get it repaired but surgery went well. My recovery has been going really well, and I'm just blessed."
View photos of Vikings players working out during offseason programming at the TCO Performance Center.
Smith, a 2019 second-round pick, said he was able to sit back and mentally digest the game for the first time in his life. The 23-year-old didn't redshirt at Alabama and played right away as a rookie, so the injury provided him with some time to take mental reps from afar.
"Just kind of being able to sit back and reflect on myself with what I've done so far and also take a step back and talk to the other guys, coach them up," Smith said. "I try to be a leader any way I can."
But make no mistake about it, now that Smith gets closer and closer to full strength each day, he wants to make an impact on the field more than anywhere else.
And Smith has high hopes for an O'Connell-led offense, especially considering what he did in Los Angeles a season ago.
"The Rams won the Super Bowl last year, and you know that's the goal, especially for us," Smith said. "Having that momentum and seeing, you know, them excel and the success that they've had in that offense, and we know the guys we have in our room, you know what I'm saying?
"So we're seeing the film and watching Odell [Beckham, Jr.] and Tyler Higbee and Cooper Kupp and these guys making these plays," Smith said. "But you know we've got Justin Jefferson, myself, Adam Thielen, K.J. [Osborn], Dalvin [Cook], Kirk [Cousins] back there. We've got a lot of talent, so it's exciting. We haven't got to the field yet, but everybody's ready."
Smith may not be fully involved physically with the Vikings offense right away this spring, but there's a clear long-term plan for him.
And when he does get back on the field, O'Connell believes he'll be among the most versatile and important pieces of the entire Vikings offense.
"I think, as far as the verbiage and the terms, all of that will be new," O'Connell said about Smith learning a new offense. "But in a lot of ways, when a guy does things well on a football field, you can translate it to any system, whether it's being a vertical threat down the field, having a role in the run game.
"All the different ways we marry the run and the pass, I think Irv has the perfect skillset to play a big role in that," O'Connell continued. "Going back and watching him, I know he was feeling really, really good before the injury last year. He had a really productive camp, and it was a shame to not see all of that hard work come to fruition in the season.
"But that's what we're trying to do now, get him right back to where he was, if not better, if not stronger. And then obviously it's about the team, and Irv will take it from there," O'Connell added.