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Anthony Harris steps into Vikings' safety dance

MINNEAPOLIS -- If it's Week 14 and the Vikings are on the road, safety Anthony Harris must be on the clock. Exactly one year after the undrafted free agent started his first NFL game in place of an injured Harrison Smith, it appears Harris will r...

Jan 3, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris (41) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Minnesota won 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 3, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris (41) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Minnesota won 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS - If it's Week 14 and the Vikings are on the road, safety Anthony Harris must be on the clock.

Exactly one year after the undrafted free agent started his first NFL game in place of an injured Harrison Smith, it appears Harris will replace the former Pro Bowler again Sunday at Jacksonville.

Smith did not practice again Thursday after aggravating an ankle injury in last week's 17-15 loss to Dallas. A source told the Pioneer Press this week that Smith tore a ligament that might require surgery and that he might not play again this season.

Harris practiced alongside starting strong safety Andrew Sendejo during the portion that was open to the media.

Coach Mike Zimmer said Harris was more experienced in the Vikings defense than rookie Jayron Kearse. He indicated the second-year player would get the nod for Smith, but didn't rule out veteran cornerback Terence Newman shifting over again in a pinch.

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"He can probably play any position back there," Zimmer said of the 38-year-old Newman.

Harris is excited to showcase himself again.

"It's just an opportunity," he said. "You've got to go out there and prepare, study the defense, study your opponent and give yourself the best opportunity you can."

Harris has been active for all 12 games but has played only 56 snaps, fewest among Minnesota's safeties. With Sendejo sidelined with an injury Oct. 31 at Chicago, he rotated with Kearse after the seventh-round pick looked shaky during the Bears' initial touchdown drive in their 20-10 win.

"I think Kearse will be a good player, but at this point he's ...," Zimmer said before trailing off. "It's funny. In the preseason, he was just going and playing. Now he's playing a little tight. That's the difference. He's trying to be perfect all the time instead of cutting it loose.

"Anthony's a little quicker with understanding the different nuances of things he has to do. I think that's a little bit of second year-first year (growth)."

Harris was signed off the practice squad Dec. 8, 2015, and played two days later against the Cardinals in Arizona with Smith and Sendejo both sidelined with injuries. Newman stepped in for Sendejo in a 23-20 loss at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Harris, one of a record six rookies who started that Thursday night for Minnesota, recorded six tackles. He started again the following week against Chicago and saw action in the Vikings' final four regular-season games, plus their 10-9 wild-card playoff loss to Seattle.

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"Now, I've got a full year under my belt. I've gotten those reps in our defense, so I feel much more comfortable," said Harris, who was signed out of the University of Virginia. "Knowing yourself, starting at a new level, getting to know the players around you, getting to know the tempo of the game and just getting comfortable with the system, I've seen some growth in myself."

Secondary play against Jacksonville figures to be pivotal if the Vikings (6-6) want to keep their playoff hopes alive after losing six of their past seven games.

The Jaguars (2-10) are tied with San Diego and the New York Jets with an NFL-high 25 turnovers. Quarterback Blake Bortles is responsible for 19 of them, including a league-worst 15 interceptions. Bortles had an interception returned for a touchdown in a 20-10 loss to Denver.

"Obviously, we've got to take care of the ball. A lot of that is on me," Bortles said this week. "There's been some bad luck, some bad decisions, some bad throws. There's been a bit of everything. It's about how you eliminate those bone-headed decisions and bad plays. It's hard to win when you're doing that."

Not a bad time for a defensive back to have his number called.

"It's not about going out there and trying to make spectacular plays," Harris said. "It's about going out there and trying to give the team the best opportunity to win."

Smith battled through his bad ankle after initially suffering the injury Nov. 20 against Arizona. He had eight tackles against the Cowboys but left the locker room wearing a walking boot and has not returned to the field.

The 2015 Pro Bowler leads the Vikings with 97 combined tackles but they also will miss his leadership and savvy.

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"It's not so much the communication. He's a playmaker," Zimmer said. "He sees stuff and he goes and gets it."

Related Topics: MINNESOTA VIKINGSFOOTBALL
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