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Harrison Smith’s long journey

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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.

 

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.