There was an unfamiliar number running around with the linebackers last week at Vikings OTAs, a No. 32 mixed in with the familiar 40s and 50s.
Don’t be fooled by the No. 32. That’s not Onterrio Smith. That’s Cameron Smith, technically a returning veteran, but by any other calculation, he’s brand new. A new person with a new heart and, yes, a new number.
Smith underwent open-heart surgery last Aug. 24 to fix a bicuspid aortic valve that was discovered after a false positive COVID-19 test and cost him the entire 2020 season. Last week’s OTAs were Smith’s first time back on the field after his life-altering health scare.
“After the year was done, I had reached out to [equipment manager] Dennis [Ryan] and said, ‘I need a fresh start, I need a new number,'” Smith, who used to wear No. 59, told reporters last week. “And when they brought in the number rule, I just looked at the best number available in my eyes; I felt like 32 was the one. It feels good. … It just feels like a new me; got a new heart, a new number, it’s a brand new me. It’s fun.”
Heart issues have seriously affected the careers of more than a few athletes over the years: Locally, it pushed Fred Hoiberg into retirement from the Timberwolves, ended the Gophers basketball career of Jarvis Johnson before it began, and most recently, robbed Wild prospect Marco Rossi of his 2020-21 season. Smith’s effort to not only overcome a life-threatening cardiovascular issue but contribute to the Vikings’ linebacking corps makes him a rare breed. He says he’s gotten great support from his family and teammates.
“Leading up to this I was unsure what the feeling was going to be like,” Smith said when asked about retaking the practice field. “I was excited to feel that again, but when it came down to it running out there, it felt like I hadn’t missed a beat. It just felt like almost home again. Like I felt like walking into work like it was a regular thing. I think it did help being here all of last year, just really not taking my mind off what my goals are with football. Running back onto the field just good again, it felt normal, just felt like this is where I belong.”
Smith spent last season around the team facility, watching a potential opportunity for playing time slip away. The team’s top two linebackers suffered injuries as Anthony Barr missed 14 games and Eric Kendricks missed five. Smith, a second-year linebacker taken in the fifth round of the draft, would’ve been primed to play. Instead, he had to watch as backups Ryan Connelly, Troy Dye, and Blake Lynch took reps instead.
Still recovering from his procedure, and wondering whether another opportunity would arise in the future, Smith had to find a way to make last year useful. As other injured players have echoed in the past, there can be benefits to watching the game from a different perspective.
“Well, I think it helped me be able to slow everything down,” Smith said. “I really focused on just making sure I had the full grasp of every single defense that was put in. I think with anybody from Year 1 to Year 2, everything slows down a lot and feels like a little more normal, like, ‘I remember how this feels, I remember football.’ Last year was a great experience for me to step back a little bit and watch some of the great linebackers we have in our room and kind of learn from them little by little without having to feel like, you know, I was also in it doing my own thing. It was good to step back and listen to getting more comfortable around Coach Zim and the communication and lingo. It was good to get more familiar and comfortable with it all.”
It’s been two years since Smith played significant snaps in a meaningful football game. At USC, he was an exceptional four-year player who specialized in stuffing the run. At the time he was drafted, he fit the archetype of a Ben Gedeon-type that could excel on first and second downs.
Increasing football IQ from the sideline is one thing. Earning a spot on the 53-man roster is another. Smith will be in a battle to ensure that his run in Minnesota continues. Behind Barr and Kendricks, he’ll be competing with veteran pickup Nick Vigil, last year’s fourth-round pick Troy Dye, and this year’s third-round pick Chazz Surratt. While Smith’s forte is tackling and defending the run, most of his colleagues were acquired for their ability to defend the pass as the league’s offenses shift.
The third-year linebacker got off to a strong start in OTAs, earning some first-team reps in the Vikings’ base defense. While Minnesota has mixed and matched through its first week of practice, it’s clear they’re giving Smith a shot to start — and to bring his comeback story to fruition.
“It feels really good to come out and have a spot to compete for and feels good to be out with those guys and compete with,” Smith said. “We’re getting our own reps and doing our own thing. We’ve been all over the place with the reps and stuff, but it’s been good to communicate with different guys, and it helps give me a grasp of the defense itself, to communicate and not just be with your two guys. It’s been good to get back out there and compete.”
Sam Ekstrom covers the Vikings with colleague Matthew Coller at Purple Insider. Check out the Purple Insider Podcast here and consider subscribing to the Purple Insider newsletter for daily Vikings news from credentialed reporters.