The year was 2010, his first as the program’s head coach, and try as he might, Brian Kelly couldn’t make his talented senior defender play with the consistent physical approach necessary to succeed on the edge of a new look defense.
Brian Smith had been a three-year starter under the previous regime – the last two spent inside among the squad’s linebacker corps. Under Kelly and new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, Smith moved outside to “Dog” linebacker and was beaten out by his classmate, the likewise miscast Kerry Neal.
But an injury to starting weak side (inside) linebacker Carlo Calabrese at Navy in late October opened the door for Smith to move back to the middle of the field, and over the final four regular season contests, Smith posted the following numbers:
23 tackles including six stuffs, a sack, a forced fumble, five passes defended and an interception. Smith personally negated five third and fourth-down conversion attempts along the way including three at USC.
THAT, plus a 3-0 finish, serves as a November to remember for a previously struggling senior.
Who among the Irish graduates and senior class will follow the lead of Smith from 2010 and captain Kapron Lewis-Moore two seasons later?
(Already a star on the 2012 squad, Lewis-Moore finished an undefeated November with the following ludicrous stat line: 13 tackles including 8 TFL/Stuffs, 3.5 sacks, five QB hurries, two forced fumbles, and a pass defensed. KLM personally negated six third-down opportunities by opponents along the way.)
We’ve divided the 2015 senior prospects into two categories:
Already among the team’s best players, the following quintet is capable of playing at a nationally recognized level over the next five weeks.
Sheldon Day – Already enjoying his best season, improvement from Day would result in first-team All-America nominations and, more than likely, an undefeated final month for his Irish.
Nick Martin – As of Oct. 21, Martin ranked as the nation’s 17th best lineman (on either side of scrimmage) according to the Outland Trophy’s new standard of measure, the Schneider Scale. (Of note, Day ranked #21 overall.) Can he get much better? Likely not to the naked eye, but Notre Dame’s short-yardage offense can improve as can it’s goal-to-go blocking performance. Martin can augment both.
C.J. Prosise – If he improves he’ll win the Heisman and Notre Dame will finish 11-1 or better. So that’d be nice…
Suffice it to say if Prosise merely produces more of the same over the next five weeks the Irish offense will be just fine.
KeiVarae Russell – My personal pick to click for two reasons: 1.) He’s elevated his game over the last three weeks, and 2.) The collection of passing attacks on tap is less than impressive. Russell will be the best player with the ball in the air at least until, and maybe through Thanksgiving Saturday.
Ronnie Stanley – One of Notre Dame’s two most talented football players, Stanley has been outstanding in pass protection outside of a costly hiccup at Clemson. Still, it seems the senior is capable of much more and his offense might need just that against four quality defensive fronts on the November slate. Look for Stanley to cement status as a first round draft pick over the final five contests.
BRIAN SMITH, REDUX?
Each has battled through adversity and inconsistency over their respective careers. Each has a chance to make his final month one that resonates as relevant decades later among Irish fans.
(Each member of this category is ranked by the likelihood that he’ll noticeably elevate his level of play over the final month):
Elijah Shumate – Just keeps getting better. (And if there were no such thing as a backpedal, he’d be nearly flawless.) I’d be shocked if Shumate doesn’t finish strong in terms of run support and big plays made within 5-7 yards of scrimmage.
Chris Brown – Like Day, Brown is enjoying the best among his four seasons in South Bend. Unlike Day, Brown has ample room to grow in his current role as Will Fuller’s complementary receiver. Look for a healthy dose of yards after the catch from Brown this month.
Romeo Okwara – For the sake of comparison, total tackles for loss plus tackles within two yards of scrimmage:
-- Sheldon Day 11.5
-- Romeo Okwara 10
(More on that statistic tomorrow on Irish Illustrated.)
Joe Schmidt – From feel-good story, to indispensable leader, to polarizing talking point. Schmidt’s journey over the last 18-plus months is remarkable, though it’s likewise true his most notable contribution was felt because of his absence. He has five games left to reach his personal expectations in his fifth and final Irish campaign.
Matthias Farley – Shares a free safety role with enigmatic uber-athlete Max Redfield. Considering the dearth of explosive offenses awaiting the Irish defense over the next 31 days it seems the staff’ choice will lean toward better safe and secure in his assignments (Farley) than sorry in terms of the position’s starting assignment. I have a feeling one more crucial big play is forthcoming from Farley, a player that turned the timely turnover into an art form last fall as the team’s Nickel.
Amir Carlisle – What you see is likely what you get. Solid, reliable, but not a true game-breaker. One big play from Carlisle – ideally in Pittsburgh or Palo Alto – would likely work wonders in pursuit of a 5-0 finish.
Chase Hounshell – Does the grunt work, and it’s crucial to Notre Dame’s rushing attack. Pay attention following touchdowns scored and big gains for the Irish offense during November as you’ll see Hounshell blocking successfully on the play more often than not.
Jarrett Grace – Cold weather and power offenses await, which means Grace and the goal line defense might make one more crunch time appearance for the Fighting Irish.
Nicky Baratti – Involved as a blocker in Notre Dame’s punt return touchdown (UMass) and as a wall-breaker during its punt block touchdown (USC) – if Baratti can add a key block on a C.J. Sanders kick return score this month the oft-injured senior will post a notable trifecta.