Harrison Smith’s long journey


He’s a guy that seems like he’s been a part of the Irish football program forever. And for most of that time, Harrison Smith seemed to be in the doghouse.

But before all the Irish angst, Smith was a blue-chip prospect. With offers from schools like Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama, Smith wasn’t the kind of safety Notre Dame usually lands. At six-foot-two, 200-pounds, he had elite size. More impressively, he was a veritable speed merchant. At a Nike recruiting camp in 2006, Smith ran a 4.38 forty-yard dash, beating everybody but Eric Berry, who turned into an All-American at Tennessee before going fifth overall in last year’s NFL Draft.

Five years later, Smith is finally ready to play at that same level.

Better late than never.


In a 2007 season where the Irish bottomed out while choosing to develop their youth on the field, Smith was a rare freshman that stayed on the sideline, saving the year of eligibility that even makes this final season possible. But’s Smith’s work on the scout team at safety did little to prepare him for what’d happen during his sophomore season. With Kyle McCarthy and David Bruton locked in at safety, Smith was plugged into the defense as an undersized outside linebacker, with then head coach Charlie Weis trying to get his best athletes on the field.

When asked about his potential in 2008, linebacker Maurice Crum called Smith the best all-around athlete on the team.

“He’s just one of those guys that he has every tool,” Crum said then. “A guy like that is a guy that you’ve just got to get him on the field because he can just make things happen just because he’s so fast, he’s strong and he has good size, and he has hands and he’s smart and he knows the game. He’s one of those guys having him on the field, anything can happen. He can make a play, or he can help make a play.”

Smith finished the season with the fourth most tackles on the roster, and actually lead the Irish in tackles-for-loss, tied for the lead in sacks, and finished second in passes broken up. As a debut season, it was an amazing accomplishment that most Irish fans have long forgotten.

But Smith’s shift back to his natural safety positions was one of the bigger disappointments of the 2009 campaign. His performance was emblematic of the defenses’ as a whole, with Smith making critical mistakes at the one position where mistakes just can’t be hidden.

Too good of an athlete to go to the bench, Smith bounced back to linebacker, with the hopes of the defense improving by putting Sergio Brown at safety.

“He’s had some good production in the secondary,” Weis said in late October of 2009, when the Irish were just days away from moving to 6-2 with a win against Washington State in San Antonio. “It’s just that, you know, his confidence has gotten a little bit shaken. Is so we moved him down into a comfort zone to regain his confidence.”

Weis never won another game after that Halloween night cake walk, with the Irish falling to Navy, Pitt, UConn and Stanford to close the season at 6-6, with a defensive collapse the main culprit. Weis’ fate as the man in charge was sealed with a 1-9 record in November his final two seasons, and while the former head coach deserves credit for bringing players like Smith to campus, it was his inability to make All-Americans out of a blue-chips that cost him.


With Brian Kelly taking over a team that clearly needed a defensive revival, one of the biggest questions that needed answering was what to do with Smith — one of the most talented, but least reliable, defenders on the team.

The answer was easy.

“I never thought he would have been an outside linebacker,” Kelly said before his first spring practice. “He never would be an outside linebacker in our system. He never fit that prototype for us. He’s always been a safety. If he can’t play safety, he can’t play.”

But a funny thing happened along the way. Smith started to play good football, anchoring the back end of a resurgent secondary that became the strength of the Irish defense, even when it was down to two healthy scholarship safeties. Smith was constantly around the ball from the start of the year, racking up nine tackles against Michigan, ten more against Michigan State, eleven against Stanford.

And finally, the interceptions. A late pick against Boston College on an overthrow. Another one against Pitt. Then Smith’s signature play of the season against Utah, chasing down a receiver from the far side of the field and undercutting the throw for a spectacular interception. If there was a lightbulb moment, 81,000 Irish fans saw it happen in person.

“The more he played within our system, the more comfortable he got within our system, then as he started having success, success breeds success and success breads confidence,” safeties coach Chuck Martin said this week.

With the Irish defense playing at full bore down the stretch, Smith’s five interceptions over the last four games was again emblematic of what the collective defense was doing. Unlike the struggles down the stretch in 2009, it was Smith that led the team during the best late season run in recent memory, his game sealing interception against USC and his three picks against Miami pushing Smith into rarefied air for his final season.


Of course, there are the plays most of us tend to forget. That was Smith on his back as Mark Dantonio pulled off Little Giants. And that was Smith on the turf when Ronald Johnson dropped a rain-soaked touchdown pass in the Coliseum.

But that’s the evolution of Harrison Smith. Whether you call it a coincidence, luck, or a strange twist of fate, Smith’s hard-luck journey as a college football player almost necessitated Johnson’s drop.

“It was close,” Smith said after the Irish’s victory over the Trojans, when thinking back to what could have been. “I’m glad I said my prayers.”

As Smith enters the final chapter of his Notre Dame career, it’s time for him to take the game out of God’s hands.

After a winding road, he’s good enough to just rely on his talent.


Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.