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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.

 

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter 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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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

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UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.