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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.