EAGAN, Minn. — When the Minnesota Vikings take the field against New Orleans in their preseason opener, Irv Smith Jr. will be the latest but nowhere close to the last person in the country to commemorate his 21st birthday with a visit to the Big Easy.
For Smith, though, this Friday night awaits as a truly unforgettable occasion.
The rookie tight end will not only celebrate another year of life but make his NFL debut in the same stadium where his father spent most of his professional career in front of a host of family and friends in the city he calls home.
“It’s crazy how everything worked out,” Smith said.
Selected in the second round of the draft out of Alabama, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Smith was born after his dad, Irv Smith Sr., left the Saints after five seasons. Smith Sr. played his last two years in the league with San Francisco and Cleveland, respectively.
The future football player son was just an infant then, so the memories of having a father in the NFL have been shaped largely by household memorabilia and internet searches. That doesn’t make him any less proud, of course. He’s determined, too, to establish a longer and better career than his pops.
Long before the statistics are added up, well, there are training camp stories to tell.
“When he was with the Saints, they had to go all the way to Wisconsin,” Smith said, alluding to the annual trip the Saints made from 1988-1999 to escape steamy Louisiana for the northern section of the Mississippi River valley in the bluff-lined college town of La Crosse. “I was like, ‘Why would you all go to Wisconsin?’ He was like, ‘You don’t ask. You just go.’ I thought that was funny.”
After developing at a pro-caliber college program, Smith has advanced to an organization with sparkling facilities as state-of-the-art as any in the league. His dad?
“He said that he used to get an IV between practices, all kind of stuff,” Smith said. “It’s good that we don’t have to do that now.”
The Vikings have been essentially filling Smith full of their offensive plays instead.
With a desire to employ more “12” personnel packages, with one running back and two tight ends, Smith’s field-stretching, pass-catching ability presents a wealth of potential for quarterback Kirk Cousins. Smith could line up in the backfield as a hybrid fullback, in the slot in a bunch or stack formation, out wide to create a mismatch elsewhere in the formation, or simply in a standard three-point stance next to the tackle.
Without a proven third wide receiver beyond stars Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, the new scheme directed by offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and designed by offensive adviser Gary Kubiak will carry a lot of responsibility for the tight ends.
Cousins, for one, has acknowledged a lack of trust last season in ninth-year veteran Kyle Rudolph’s ability to get open, portending an increase in passes sent his way. Smith could get in on that action, too, provided he can keep up with the steep learning curve at a complex position.
“He’s swimming, because we’re asking a lot of him right now,” Kubiak said, adding: “But that’s the way it should be. That’s why he’s here.”
Cousins praised Smith’s mobility and eagerness. He also noted that during the first week of practice Smith was a split-second slow to step off the ball upon pre-snap command, for example, the type of detail in this sport that can determine whether a particular play is productive or not.
Given all the extra time spent with tight ends coach Brian Pariani on top of his high-level experience at Alabama, though, the Vikings have seen enough good in Smith’s technique to supplement the natural ability to believe he’s on track for a significant role if not right away then soon after.
“It’s not perfect, by no means, but the kid is really willing to work,” Stefanski said. “That’s what I appreciate about Irv.”