MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Vikings took the practice field at TCO Performance Center in Eagan for the first time at training camp on Wednesday, and nobody was happier to be on the turf than tight end Irv Smith Jr.
He was on the verge of a breakout third season with the Vikings, then tore the meniscus in his knee during the 2021 preseason, and missed the entire season after having surgery. He sat and watched games from a Vikings’ suite at U.S. Bank Stadium as the team went 8-9 and missed the NFC Playoffs for the second straight year.
While teammates left town during the offseason, Smith stayed back and did rehab with Tyler Williams, Uriah Myrie, Matt Duhamel and the rest of the Vikings' new training staff.
"Now I’m back on the field and moving around. It feels good, I missed the game of football. It’s just a blessing to be back out here and be back healthy, have some fun and compete out here," Smith said before Wednesday’s practice.
Smith spent most of OTAs and minicamp off to the side doing individual work and rehab while the new offense was being installed. He started his first training camp practice working off to the side before getting in some team situations. He even made a sliding catch for a touchdown from Kirk Cousins in the corner of the end zone.
He’s moving forward, and not dwelling on the past after the first significant injury of his football career.
"That’s kind of life. Things get thrown at you that you’re not expecting, it’s how you bounce back. You’ve got to keep looking forward, you can’t look back so that’s kind of my mindset," Smith said.
Smith, a second round pick in 2019, was one of the 31 Vikings’ players to report to TCO Performance Center on Sunday. New coach Kevin O’Connell and the training staff got him on the field for a workout on Monday. They liked what they saw.
"Just have to give Irv a ton of credit. Talk about a guy that put in some work. To see him moving around yesterday, you can tell the work has been put in," O’Connell said. "We’re expecting him to be full to start."
"I’m really excited about Irv coming back, definitely missed him last year. He had a hell of a training camp last year to start us off, so definitely excited to have him back on the team," Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson said. He’s going to be a big part of our team, so happy to have him back.
In his first two seasons, Smith had 66 catches for 676 yards and seven touchdowns in 29 games, including 14 starts.
Smith came to training camp this week with a bit of a new look, sporting a butterfly tattoo on his neck, as well as one of his mother. He also has a Hulk tattoo on his left hand.
"It’s like a new beginning. All the things that I’ve done in my past, I still reflect on but I’m excited for the future and what the future holds for myself, for this team, for this offense. We’re just going to take it one day at a time, but it’s definitely a new beginning for me," Smith said. "I’m very excited about it."
VIKINGS FIRST TRAINING CAMP PRACTICE IN THE BOOKS
The Vikings had a late-morning walk-through and afternoon practice as Kevin O’Connell took the field at training camp Wednesday for the first time as a head coach. The team will have a closed practice on Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium, and the team’s first practice open to the public is on Saturday at TCO Performance Center.
A few highlights from Wednesday’s first session:
- The first-team offensive line featured Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Jesse Davis and Brian O’Neill
- Linebacker Jordan Hicks, a free agent signing, was not at the facility due to a non COVID-19 illness and stayed away as a precaution
- Rookie Andrew Booth Jr. made an interception on Kirk Cousins
- Irv Smith Jr. had a sliding catch for a touchdown from Cousins
- Cam Bynum got the first-team reps opposite Harrison Smith at safety. There were several times that Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter lined up next to each other on the defensive line.
- Tight end Johnny Mundt made a leaping, athletic catch over the middle with rookie Lewis Cine in tight coverage
The Vikings have a total of 14 training camp practices open to fans, starting Saturday. They’ll start getting in pads next week.