MINNEAPOLIS — Eric Kendricks is usually soft spoken and short-winded. But when the subject of Anthony Harris’s long road to the starting job was raised following a two-interception performance against the Atlanta Falcons, Kendricks lit up.
“Anthony Harris, man, that gets me emotional, honestly,” Kendricks said. “I’ve seen him go through a lot. I’ve seen him start at the bottom, legitimately. All he did was work. All he did was battle…there’s no question why he’s in the place he’s in, he’s in the right spot and he’s catching these balls, he works for that.”
Harris joined the Vikings in 2015 as an undrafted free agent. Following a strong training camp he was cut and signed to the practice squad. A plethora of injuries pushed him up into action for four games. Kendricks recalled being impressed right away.
“He came in that week…and I felt comfortable with him back there even though he hadn’t played a snap all year,” Kendricks said. “I heard him talking and communicating the whole game, we were on the same page and he was making plays and I was like, ‘this dude Ant is a baller, he’s a certified baller.'”
The Vikings turned to Harris last season when Andrew Sendejo went down for the year with an injury. He turned in a two-interception performance against the Chicago Bears and put together a strong remainder of the season. The Vikings showed their belief by bringing him back and letting Andrew Sendejo walk in free agency.
On the second drive of Sunday’s 28-12 win by the Vikings over the Falcons, the fifth-year safety grabbed a jump ball thrown by Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in the direction of superstar receiver Julio Jones. The pick set up a 19-yard touchdown run by Dalvin Cook.
With the Vikings up 21-0 in the third quarter, the Falcons offense started to get on track driving from their own 15-yard line to the Vikings goal line. Ryan looked to the end zone for tight end Luke Stocker, but Harris was a step ahead and nabbed his second interception of the day, shutting down any chance of a Falcons comeback.
Defensive back Jayron Kearse, who was called into action as the nickel cornerback when Mackensie Alexander went down with an arm injury, said that he’s seen Harris as a ball hawk since they were both in college.
“He finds the ball, when the ball is in the air he goes and gets it and I’ve actually known that about him before I even got here,” Kearse said. “We were competing in the ACC against each other and I came in my freshman year and had five picks but I was second in the ACC because of him. He had [eight] picks so I already knew about him.”
“We had a talk in training camp and he was like, ‘I didn’t get my hands on one ball in camp,’ and now he comes out here and gets two [interceptions] so he saved it for the right time,” Kearse added.
Harris and Kearse have worked together as role players for the last three years. Kearse has looked to Harris for help in learning multiple spots as the “big nickel” corner and backup safety.
“It started out as us two as backups and he were always communicating out there together, I’m happy to see him flourishing. He works for it. He’s a smart football player. He’s a talented football player. He’s going to fight for it. It’s good to see him get everything that he’s getting.”
Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr, who set the tone with a sack on the opening drive, echoed his teammates’ sentiments.
“He’s a great player, he’s very smart, he’s always in the right place and just does his job, doesn’t try to do too much,” Barr said. “He makes plays for us when we need it the most.”
Harris was one of the question marks heading into the season along with whether the team’s depth could hold up through injuries. Not only did Harris answer the questions about whether he can continue to play at the high level he set last season as a starter but Kearse and rookie Kris Boyd stepped in and helped hold the Falcons to just 5.4 yards per pass play.
The secondary’s challenges will continue next week against the Green Bay Packers’ new-look offense.