The curious case of Harrison Smith

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As Notre Dame fans turned the page on the disappointing 2008 season, many looked ahead to the 2009 season and started filling in the blanks. A returning offensive line. Skill positions largely untouched. A year of weight-training and experience along the defensive front. Linebackers buoyed by Manti Te’o. A veteran secondary moving Harrison Smith back to his natural position to replace David Bruton.

The fit seemed perfect. Smith, one of Notre Dame’s best and most athletic defenders would bring his speed back to free safety, a position he was recruited to play and where he practiced exclusively during his redshirt freshman season.

Let’s just say things haven’t gone according to plan.

While Terrail Lambert also graduated, most assumed the Irish secondary would improve, vastly underestimated the effect the loss of David Bruton would have on the passing defense. Last season, Notre Dame ranked 44th nationally against the pass, allowing 195 yards per game and allowing quarterbacks to complete only 54 percent of their throws.

This year, with Smith manning the safety position opposite Kyle McCarthy, the defense has plummeted to 117th nationally, giving up nearly 290 yards a game and allowing quarterbacks to complete 59% of their throws. In basic terms, the Irish defense is giving up around the same amount of yardage that Jimmy Clausen throws for on a weekly basis. Last year, the Irish gave up closer to Cody Hawkins yardage (who just lost his job). There’s a big difference between Jimmy Clausen and Cody Hawkins. And there’s a big difference between this year’s Irish passing defense and last season’s Irish passing defense.

The issues aren’t as simple as saying that Harrison Smith is the problem, but the challenges Smith has had this year in his transition back to the secondary have been very noticeable. It was a flawed assumption many Irish fans (not to mention the coaching staff) made this season when they thought Smith would be able to fill the shoes of Bruton, who was one of the best centerfielders the Irish have had at safety for years. While people have credited Kyle McCarthy for his stellar play this year, the truth of the matter is that Kyle’s also at his best down in the box, not roaming free in the secondary and breaking on the ball. In essence, the Irish defense has been getting scorched because the two defenders most integral in playing a good two-deep scheme have been mediocre in Cover 2. 

In Harrison’s defense, the growing pains should’ve been expected. Smtih has been forced to relearn many of the things he fought to make habits last season. As an undersized strong-side linebacker, Smith was forced to learn how to take on linemen, how to read run keys, and how to make a linebackers aggressive nature his first reaction. Backpedaling was substituted with pursuit drills. ball skills were traded for pass-rush moves. Taking into consideration the change, it’s easy to understand why he’s been a step late when trying to make a play on the ball.

Smith’s long been known as a tireless worker, and the change is something he understands. “I had some games I didn’t think I played very well in,” Smith said about his play thus far. “Sometimes I think I’ll be too aggressive when I’m playing safety,” Smith said. “You can do that more when you’re done there.”

Down there is in the box, being used in Jon Tenuta’s blitz schemes, far away from the centerfield position he was asked to roam.

“You kind of have to fight a little bit more, have a little bit more of an aggressive mentality,” Smith said about playing linebacker.

For the Irish pass defense, one of the keys to turning things around is making the right decisions second nature. And while it might force the Irish to find creative ways for both Smith and Darius Fleming to be on the field together, it’s a much better alternative than what’s been happening. 

Restocking the roster: Running Backs

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s running back depth chart was tested to its max less than 10 minutes into the season opener. The projected two-deep, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, were both lost for the year—Bryant out of school as an academic and disciplinary casualty by the start of fall camp and Folston because of a knee injury suffered on his third carry of the season.

Welcome back to Notre Dame, Autry Denson.

The school’s all-time leading rusher in his first season as a running back coach had to be feeling a little woozy. He had a converted wide receiver taking featured-back carries and a true freshman a little over a year removed from his own major knee injury serving as his primary backup.

That the Irish had their most prolific running season under Brian Kelly says quite a bit about the job that Denson did. It’s also a credit to the offensive line blocking, the adjusted scheme that also protected two new starting quarterbacks, and the talent that remained at the position.

Spring presents new challenges. Tarean Folston should be a little over seven months removed from ACL surgery, making him doubtful to do anything more than wear a red jersey. With C.J. Prosise‘s departure, Adams goes from record-setting rookie to spring starter, with Williams likely carrying a large load as well.

Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh arrive this summer, reinforcements on the way. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the pre-spring roster at running back.

 

DEPARTURES
C.J. Prosise (156 carries 1,032 yards, 11 TDs)
Greg Bryant (lost preseason 2015)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Adams (117 carries, 835 yards, 6 TDs)
Dexter Williams (21 carries, 81 yards, 3 TDs)
Tony Jones Jr.
Deon McIntosh 

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Tarean Folston,* Sr.
Josh Adams, Soph.
Dexter Williams, Soph.
Justin Brent,* Junior

*Additional year of eligibility remaining.

 

ANALYSIS: This might be a position battle deferred to fall camp, especially if Folston is still in recovery mode. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to rush back from an ACL tear for 15 practices, so while the rising senior may be chomping at the bit to return, it’s better to save it until August.

Folston will likely be the team’s most versatile back, but keeping Adams off the field will be a hard chore. His breakaway speed was on display multiple times in 2015, with his record-setting run against Wake Forest the team’s longest play from scrimmage. Adams also likely added some mass and physicality to his game in the offseason weigh-training program, giving the Irish someone capable of hitting the big play and also moving the sticks in short yardage situations.

The staff believes that Dexter Williams is a talented back, so with three solid contributors on the roster before Jones or McIntosh hit campus, it’ll be fun to see how snaps get sorted. (From that perspective, you can only wonder how they’d have dealt with the champagne problem of having Prosise around…) Justin Brent remains an option as well, though the attrition from the receiving corps makes you think he’ll be back at receiver.

The wildcard in all of this is Folston. He’s a unique talent with natural ability you just can’t teach. If he’s fully recovered and ready to engage in a position battle, there won’t likely be a drop off even with the early departure of Prosise.

 

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

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