Teacher, pupil believe in the process

Brian Smith and Bob Diaco weren't searching for redemption; they found it nonetheless in the squad's 3-0 regular season conclusion.

The defensive coordinator suffered through a single, terrible Saturday afternoon, but stayed the course.

The senior leader had his wings clipped by said defensive coordinator when a classmate was deemed the better fit for the new position in the new defense.

Brian Smith lost a starting job but won over Notre Dame fans.

Bob Diaco's plan of attack played an undeniable role in Notre Dame's defensive debacle vs. Navy (363 rushing yards and 5 TD allowed); his ensuing game plans won over a growing contingent of doubters, guiding his unit through the program's best three-game defensive run in nearly three decades.

Neither needed either for personal validation...but three wins in three games never hurts.

Moments don't last 12 months

Despite what you've read, nothing "clicked."

Its rarely that simple in team sports, and a singular magical moment in which the light bulb finally brightened at Notre Dame wasn't part of the team's November surge.

The combined 1-8 final month swoon of 08-09 was reversed by more than 10 months of preparation, study and dedication. November was merely the next step, now the most recent step, in an ongoing, never ending, program-wide plan of attack.

"The players have continued to improve from spring football a year ago to the end of spring; from spring to fall camp, and from fall camp to Game One," offered Diaco when asked about the defense's late-season dominance.

"From Game One to the last game, there's been improvement. Really to a man, I can't think of one person in the overall unit that hasn't gotten better each week."

(The last sentence sounds like coach-speak, but can you offer a name to the contrary?)

Continual (its not continuous when a debacle such as Navy lands inconveniently in Week Eight) improvement was realized by Diaco's troops – as promised and presented as goal No. 1 for Brian Kelly and his staff upon moving into the palatial space of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex one year ago.

The Irish D yielded 12 touchdowns in September (4 games); 11 in October (5 games); 1 in November (3 games). And that lone November scoring drive covered two yards…in four plays.

As for the defense's purported shift in philosophy, approach or focus during the Week 10 Bye (the first week of November), Diaco brushed off such nonsense, offering an overview and long-term vision instead.

"There was never any thought to a shift in any way," Diaco corrected a phalanx of reporters that hadn't had contact with the young defensive coordinator in more than a month. "We're on the right track; we're laying the foundation for the future and we're continuing to move forward in the process."

That process has the Irish playing their best defensive football in more than seven seasons. More important, the team's fatal flaw in 2009 is its greatest strength at season's end 2010.

Diaco's defense faces one more challenge to complete the turnaround – the 26th ranked rushing offense and intermittently explosive downfield passing game of the Miami Hurricanes.

Key to that matchup is the ability of junior quarterback Jacory Harris – a player known for keeping both teams in the game.

"As it relates to him not playing well I don't know anything about that," Diaco said when asked why the dangerous Harris occasionally offers a sloppy effort. "We're just going to defend as we always do. That's how we'll conduct every year and that's what we'll continue to do."

At this point, Irish fans expect nothing less.

Lifetime commitment

He was revered as a late commitment (and late offer). Beloved as a fiery freshman; viewed from the outside as a leader by his sophomore and certainly junior season.

While Brian Smith's career on-field performance was inconsistent – his level of dedication to his craft and teammates never wavered. Not even when he was demoted to backup DROP linebacker; not when he felt he deserved more field time, and not when the Irish dipped below .500 with just three games left in his final collegiate season.

"It was very difficult. I feel like I give my team a good chance to win some football games but its hard to do that from the sidelines," Smith said of the team's 4-4 start during which he backed up classmate Kerry Neal on the outside. "It was hard, but I stayed resilient, stayed patient, and I never let anyone see that I was upset because I knew that if I showed I was upset that it would be a distraction to the team. These guys in here are all my brothers and I didn't want to do that to my family.

"When I got my number called (as a starting inside linebacker for Week Nine) I just wanted to do my best for them. It turned out well so far – I'm looking forward to keeping it going."

Smith was arguably the team's top impact defender in November and an unquestioned prime piece of the defensive resurgence.

His position coach and coordinator had a simple explanation for his pupil's late-year push.

"Brian, from the very beginning, has not at one minute lost any energy or excitement or been negative in any way or complained about a role," Diaco offered. "He's just been fantastic from a team standpoint and team energy standpoint. He's energized me daily; he's been nothing but a pleasure and it continues to be that."

Smith's four-game statistics as an inside ‘backer (23 tackles – 1 for lost yardage – 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception and 4 passes defended) bettered those posted over his first eight contests on the outside. But like most who know the end is near, Smith is only concerned about the bottom line: earning one more win for his soon-to-be alma mater.

"It's been very gratifying, I'm so happy to be part of this organization," Smith said prior to exiting for El Paso. "I made a joke in the linebacker room about guys making commitments to Notre Dame – I made mine when I was four years old. I love this place from the bottom of my heart and I'm glad I'm leaving it in better shape than when I came in here."

He started as an outside ‘backer in 2007. Moved inside as sophomore in ‘08; jumped back outside in the 4-3 to begin 2009 before shifting back inside to conclude his junior yea. Another move outside in the spring of 2010 seemed permanent…until he was needed inside again – one final move and a subsequent all-star effort for his last month on campus.

So what position suits Brian Smith best?

"I'm a football player," he said.

Hard to argue with that.

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