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.