"It's not my senior day," Smith said 53 weeks ago in a weekday meeting with the media. "I'm coming back."
His honesty was refreshing, though likely frowned upon by both media relations and the University's Faculty Board that must accept all 5th-year applicants into a graduate school program. In Smith's case, the "other" aspect of his return was ensured: there was no way head coach Brian Kelly would turn down his overtures as Smith was, and is, one of the team's 10 best players.
So certain was Smith's extra-year presence for 2011, defensive backs coach Chuck Martin joked of Smith's "potential" return last November, (as well as that of fellow 5th-year defensive back Gary Gray): "They'd better, be back. I'll wring their necks if they're not…"
(Maybe Irish basketball coach Mike Brey should have had coach Martin speak with Carleton Scott last March on his behalf?)
The ProcessThere are 14 current Irish seniors technically in a similar position to Smith and Gray at this time last year, but in reality, only a handful possess similar bargaining power. More than half of those 14 eligible to return will not, whether it be their decision or (in some cases, begrudgingly) that of the coaching staff's.
"I think to a large degree we try to separate that in our own mind in terms of all right, who's coming back and who's not," Kelly said in particular of this weekend's ceremonial send-off. "We just treat them all as seniors. Because that's the way they go to school every day. I try to stay away (from those thoughts during the season). I'm sure I'll have some thoughts after the season. But you're right: you don't know who's coming back and who's actually graduating."
Senior center Braxston Cave can be assumed back, as Kelly noted off-handedly that he'd return from foot surgery "this spring." Injured defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore is a no-brainer to return, too, as a three-man defensive end rotation with Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch will be the envy of the Midwest next autumn.
Already a Notre Dame graduate and participant in the school's accelerated MBA program, Cwynar put to rest others' thoughts that he might be ready to move to the business world following his fourth season of college.
"I'd love to come back. It's a great place; it's great playing football here and it's a great school, but what I'm mostly focused on is Boston College. There's a lot of football to be played between now and then."
Cwynar takes nothing for granted heading into what will be the final home game...for some.
"You have to treat it as Senior Day, you don't know what's going to happen between now and then," Cwynar assessed. "You can't think ‘I'll be here next year,' you just focus on this game. I've got a bunch of friends that are seniors and this is for sure their last game, so going out there and making sure they leave the Stadium with a win and good memories, that's real important to me."
With 85 scholarships available and 13 seniors (including 5th-years) exhausting their eligibility, plus 15 verbal commitments already in tow for February's National Signing Day (as well as returning 2010 recruit Chris Badger), Kelly knows decisions must be made as the staff continues its recruiting efforts.
"Certainly we have to have an idea in our own mind as we crunch numbers and things like that," he said. "But we won't make hard decisions until after the bowl game," he offered. "Then we'll have to A.) sit down with the young men and B.) (advise) our coaches in their recruiting process what direction to go to.
"I don't want to ‘poo-poo' that we haven't thought about it, but it's not something that we would really address in the deeper level until after the bowl game," Kelly added.
As of today, 10 of the 14 eligible seniors could technically return – that number determined by verbal commitments and Badger (above) already taking four spots from next year's 85-man roster. With each verbal commitment to follow, one potential 5th-year senior is pushed out the door, and with just 15 incoming freshmen at present, its logical to assume a bare minimum of three, and the possibility of five or six recruits joining Kelly's 2012 class between now and the first Wednesday in February.
It's a harsh reality all schools face with modern scholarship limits.
(Editor's Note: For instance, before rosters reach such restraint, Penn State's 1986 national championship team included 17 5th-year seniors – I have no idea why I remember that…)
For most seniors, Saturday will be the last time they don the Irish home jerseys. As Kelly noted earlier this week, "winning" is the best memory they could cherish.
Returning the FavorThe value of Smith's return to the squad this season cannot be overstated. Just the 4th lone captain since the practice of co-captains became the norm in the late 60s, Smith has been the defense's human eraser – mistakes made up front are mitigated by his presence. (He's a lock for a second straight season among Irisheyes.com's Top 10 player list.)
He's led by example throughout the Kelly era – this season he embraced another essential form of guidance.
"I think there are different moments that if you're a good leader that you have to apply your skills and sometimes there's that time when you need to be vocal," Kelly said of the soft-spoken Smith. "It doesn't mean that's the way you need to be all the time because Harrison's not that way, he's a ‘lead-by-example' (type). But he'll pull you aside and he'll say something to you, he's not afraid.
"I would tell you that the best (leaders) that I've had can handle the situation and utilize good leadership skills when needed. Sometimes it's not of their character, but they do it."
Kelly added that the outgoing class has influenced the program's growth.
"All of our seniors have had an impact on the direction and the expectations. When I say direction, my voice and how we want to do things," Kelly said. "All of our seniors have done a nice job of echoing the things that I want them to do. And they've done it by their actions too. It hasn't just been lip service."
Notable among that group is senior running back Jonas Gray, inexplicably challenging the 1,000-yard plateau after three seasons of frustration.
"I can't remember in my 21 years of coaching a guy that has made that significant of an impact on a football team," said Kelly of a formerly non-descript player such as Gray. "I've had some senior linemen step up and be great role guys, but I mean he's an actual playmaker for us. He's the guy that decided to do this. We said, ‘Listen, you've got to do this.' And he could have chosen not to do it. It's a great story."
(For more on Gray and the best senior season at the program since Reggie Brooks dominated the gridiron in his final season of 1992, check out the November issue of Irish Eyes Magazine.)