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.