Two years ago this month, Smith's second collegiate head coach, Brian Kelly, offered this of the former four-star Knoxville Catholic uber-athlete:
"He never would have been an outside ‘backer in our system. He never fit that prototype for us. If he can't play safety, he can't play."
Turns out, he was able to play safety.
Dubbed "Boy Wonder" by his former position coach (and current offensive coordinator) Chuck Martin, Smith responded to Kelly's spring 2010 public challenge with 26 starts, 183 tackles, 7 interceptions, and 24 passes defended over the next two seasons, not to mention a solo mission as team captain in 2011.
He ranks among the nation's best safety prospects – a second-round selection is his likely future; a first-round flier not out of the question.
"I was talking to Coach Martin and Coach Kelly the other day and they were asking me what round I was going to go in," Smith offered. "First day, second day, third day, whatever…
"I was like, ‘If you told me I was going in any day two or three years ago I would have been pumped. It's pretty unreal how much (of a difference) a couple of years makes."
He's not alone. Fellow 5th-year senior Taylor Dever's rise was even more surprising than the always talented Smith's. A spot player in 2009, his junior season, Dever won the starting spot at right tackle for his senior year, Kelly's first at the helm.
Aside from a two-game stint in 2010 missed due to a hamstring injury, he never relinquished it. Dever then parlayed his efforts into an NFL Combine Invitation and likely selection in the forthcoming draft.
"To be honest, I red-shirted (in 2007) and almost got lost in the system if you will," Dever offered. "It's always been a dream of mine, as it is with everyone playing college football, to make it to the NFL. But now I'm in this position today and I'm very appreciative of the opportunities, and I'm going to work as hard as I can."
Dever's ability to move and block in space was showcased in Kelly's spread attack. That skill set caught the eye of NFL scouts, but its his well-rounded past that will prepare him best for the months to come.
"That's something that's an advantage," Dever said of his role in Kelly's offense, "but also being in (Charlie) Weis' system for three years. I'm familiar with pro style terminology. I think getting exposure to both will only help in the long run."
Redemption Song, Part IIWith due respect to fellow late-bloomers Reggie Brooks, Shane Walton, and Jeff Samardzija, no former Irish competitor conjures as many feel-good memories and fond wishes among the team's fan base as likeable 2011 breakout star, Jonas Gray.
Fumble-prone (four fumbles in 61 touches qualifies) prior to the new staff's arrival, Gray made it through the 2010 season without dropping the pigskin, showing flashes of his ability in limited opportunities as the team's 4th, then 3rd running back.
But the 2011 season started with the fumble-heard-round Irish Nation and an unexpected loss to South Florida. Gray was cast alongside his good friend Dayne Crist as a goat in Notre Dame's Keystone Kops-inspired, opening day flop.
But Gray's excommunication lasted all of seven days: 66 yards on six carries vs. Michigan; 65 yards on 12 rushes vs. MSU; a 79-yard touchdown run at Pittsburgh; and a total 791 yards and a team-best 12 touchdowns later, Gray was easily one of the team's two best football players as the team readied for its home finale vs. Boston College.
Gray's season, and potentially his NFL prospects, ended on the Eagles sideline, a shot to the knee tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Less than five months later, a muscle-bound yet trimmer Gray worked out for NFL scouts with eight of his Irish teammates.
"This injury happens a lot in football, and there have been guys who've come back and been great," Gray noted of his recovery. "It's all about the work ethic. (Scouts and GMs) seeing me out here trying to compete at all is a plus. (Gray ran pass routes, cutting and working through position-specific drills.)
"Teams have given me some good grades after injury," he continued. "Anywhere from third to fifth round; and that's awesome. I'm just looking to getting back healthy and working hard. I see the light at the end of the tunnel."
How did Gray make it back to relative strength in such a limited period of time?
"I worked hard," he stated emphatically. "Its incredible and a blessing. Hard work and having the right people supporting me and giving me the right direction. I'm bigger from the combine and I actually lost body fat so I feel awesome.
"I wasn't doing as much running before so once I was able to start running I slimmed down and toned up more," he noted of his physique. "No classes is a big thing. Plus I was in sunny Florida and that was huge."
Gray was the last of the trio to flash any hint of NFL form – a full three seasons passed before casual Irish football fans had any idea who No. 25 was in the Irish backfield.
"It's not where you start its where you finish," said Kelly of the trio. "I think its important that when you turn your son over to me, the expectation for that family should be that I develop that young man during his time here at Notre Dame.
"It would be for me if I turned my son over to another program, I'd want to see him develop. We're proud of the fact that these guys developed and that there is a next step for them. Whether there is or not, we want to see that improvement. Whether it's a walk-on that never has a chance at the NFL but improves every year; that's why we do this, to see that improvement as they go along."
Gray's aware of his meteoric rise from message board obscurity to legitimate NFL prospect.
"It's crazy, certainly a blessing," he said of his late ascent. "I'll make sure to do everything I can to get back to where I was before. Do all the little things and having patience through doing it."
Patience: the virtue that binds them all.