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Za’Darius Smith fired up about Vikings opening season against former team Green Bay

The outside linebacker spent the last three seasons with the Packers before they released him in March in a salary-related move

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith celebrates after sacking San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (not pictured) in the first quarter during a NFC Divisional playoff football game Jan. 22, 2022, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Jeff Hanisch / USA Today Sports
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EAGAN, Minnesota — When the Minnesota Vikings announced last week that they will open the season against Green Bay, Za’Darius Smith tweeted an emoji of a pair of eyes.

The outside linebacker spent the last three seasons with the Packers before they released him in March in a salary-related move. So you better believe Smith, who signed with Minnesota shortly thereafter, is looking forward to the Sept. 11 opener at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“I’m just happy, excited,’’ Smith said after Tuesday’s second day of organized team activities at the TCO Performance Center. “You know, things didn’t work out there, but it’s still good. I get to face them twice a year, man, and I just can’t wait. Get a chance to see a lot of my old teammates. But, man it’s going to be a big one.’’

As the game gets closer, Smith said he’ll brief the Vikings on what he knows about the Packers.

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For now, Smith likes how he fits in with new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell’s 3-4 scheme. He played in a 3-4 with Green Bay, including two seasons when Vikings assistant head coach Mike Pettine was the Packers’ defensive coordinator and three when Minnesota outside linebackers coach/pass rush specialist Mike Smith was previously his position coach.

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“I’m familiar with everything, the 3-4 defense, and just being able to drop in coverage and move around under front,’’ Smith said.

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is happy to now have Smith on his side.

“He’s crazy,’’ Cook said with a laugh. “Practices are literally fun. He’s going to be one of those players that gets our whole team better, just bringing that energy. Having Z over there on the other side of (edge rusher) Danielle (Hunter) is just a scary look.’’

Deep backfield

Cook is excited about the depth Minnesota has in the backfield.

The Vikings selected North Carolina running back Ty Chandler in the fifth round of last month’s draft. He will provide additional depth behind Cook alongside Alexander Mattison, the team’s primary backup the past three years, and Kene Nwangwu.

“We’re in the NFL, things happen, guys go down,’’ Cook said.

Cook missed four games last season, and Mattison rushed for 90 or more yards in three of them. And Cook is expecting bigger things from Nwangwu, entering his second season.

“He doesn’t have a ceiling,’’ Cook said. “He’s got it all. We see it on special teams. … The thing I haven’t seen is him run the ball more consistently and get the ball more. I think that’s going to happen coming up … He’s special with the ball in his hands, and I want to see him make more plays.”

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Fun with O'Connell

Cook played his first five seasons under head coach Mike Zimmer, who was fired in January and replaced by Kevin O’Connell.

“Being around (O’Connell) and our whole staffing, being around (running backs coach Curtis) Modkins, it’s just fun being around this group and going through the process with the guys we got here,” Cook said. “I can feel the vibes. it’s just fun.”

So how does Cook compare playing for O’Connell to being under Zimmer?

“I’m not going to get into comparing last year and this year,” he said. “This year is a clean start for us, and we just want to look forward to what we have ahead and that’s us chasing a world championship.”

Briefly

–Smith said he’s excited to play alongside Vikings defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, whom he has been watching since the latter entered the NFL in 2017. “Watching him grow, man, he’s been one of the best interior guys in this league,” Smith said.

–Cook, who wore No. 33 his first five seasons before switching to No. 4, said it’s strange to see rookie linebacker Brian Asamoah with his old number. “It was kind of weird when I saw him in (last weekend’s) rookie minicamp,’’ Cook said. “I kind of had to double take, like ‘Hold up, wait.”’

–In the battle for the starting right guard spot, veterans Jesse Davis and Chris Reed shared first-team snaps Tuesday.

–The Vikings conclude their first week of OTAs on Thursday. Their second week features practices next Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

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