When Harrison Smith arrived at Notre Dame from Knoxville, Tenn., in 2007, he was a shy, reticent young man trying to adapt to his new surroundings and learn from the myriad teaching experiences that awaited him.
It wasn’t easy. Charlie Weis and his coaching staff decided to red-shirt the four-star prospect with five-star qualities, including gazelle-like athleticism from the free safety position.
“Physically, I was always ready to play, but I didn’t have the mental preparation I needed to play as a freshman,” Smith said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart enough. I just didn’t figure it out fast enough my first year.
“It took me a year or so to figure it out. Then I had to transition onto the field and I bounced around between a couple of positions.”
After playing in all 13 games in 2008, Smith started the first six games of ’09 at safety alongside Kyle McCarthy before starting the last half of the season at outside linebacker.
The grand experiment – moving a natural born free safety to outside linebacker – was, at the time, a setback to his career. It also would be, in retrospect, one of the best things that happened to him.
“I actually think bouncing around to a couple of positions helped me in the long run,” Smith said. “I always look back and think, ‘Man, I wish I could go back to Notre Dame and play, knowing what I know now.’
“But it was a blessing to do those things and to play for two different head coaches, two different staffs and having different defensive coordinators. I got a piece of everything.
“I just wish I could have played better. There were games where I played terrible. I always remember those games more than the good games. In the long run, though, that helped me. You’ve just got to take those things and learn from them.”
“Better” was just around the corner. Smith picked off seven passes to go along with 91 tackles as a red-shirt junior in 2010, and then added another 90 stops in his fifth year to position himself well for the NFL draft in the spring.
Smith finished his career as the only player in Irish history to record more than 200 tackles with at least 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups. His seven interceptions in 2010, along with Manti Te’o’s seven in 2012 and Shane Walton’s seven in 2002, are the most since current Irish secondary coach Todd Lyght snagged eight in 1989.
The No. 29 overall pick by the Minnesota Vikings in the 2012 NFL draft, Smith will be entering his fifth season in Minneapolis this fall. On June 6, he became the highest paid safety in professional football.
He signed a five-year, $51.25 million contract with a $10 million signing bonus. Nearly $29 million of that contract is guaranteed. The kid that former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta nicknamed “Hayseed” truly has arrived.
“I can’t be too mad about anything right now,” laughed Smith in a recent interview with Irish Illustrated. “(The contract) is one of those things guys always dream about when you start playing, and for it to actually happen, you realize how fortunate you are.
“It’s not just the work you put in because plenty of guys put in the work. A lot of things have to fall into place, and you have to have a lot of help along the way. I’m grateful for having the opportunity and getting the amount of luck you also need. It keeps you going and makes you want to do even better.”
Appreciative of all that he had during his days with Notre Dame and -- other than that massive back account -- unchanged from his humble beginnings in Knoxville, Smith, 27, feels blessed.
Complacency will not be an issue as he moves forward in his NFL career with the Vikings, where he has played 52 games in four seasons with 320 tackles, 12 interceptions (four returned for touchdowns) and a pair of playoff appearances, including last season.
IRISH ILLUSTRATED: With the signing of that lucrative contract, does the feeling of ‘I’ve arrived!’ come with it?
HARRISON SMITH: Honestly, I hope I never feel that way, but at the same time, there are realities to certain expectations that are placed on you when you’re a highly-rated recruit coming into college.
People expect certain things out of you. If you’re a first-round pick, people expect you to play at a certain level very quickly. If you sign a big contract, that ups the ante even more.
So there are certain things that let you know it’s time to up your game. It’s never, ‘I’ve arrived.’ It’s just, ‘Okay, now I need to ramp it up another notch.’
II: What’s the next notch for you?
HS: It’s a pretty standard discussion and kind of the textbook answer. But we want to win a Super Bowl. That’s the whole reason we play the game. Not only is that a team goal, but it’s an individual goal, and it should be an individual goal for everybody. Then, collectively, as a team, you can go get that done. That’s our whole focus.
II: From the outside looking in, Vikings’ head coach Mike Zimmer seems like a guy you’d want to play for. What’s the reality of that situation? You were there for Leslie Frazier’s time as head coach. After making the playoffs last year, you must feel like you guys are really headed in the right direction.
HS: Zimmer’s whole background is that of a defensive coach. But he’s not just a defensive coach. He’s our head coach and I think offense, defense and special teams love playing for him. We love his straightforward approach. The way he handles people and situations day-to-day…He’s got a level of grit to him that you don’t find with everybody, and I think that rubs off on the team.
He’s that guy that you don’t want to disappoint. Sometimes you see players and coaches that aren’t on the same page. There’s none of that. Everybody is on the same page and our attitude is, ‘We have to do our job, not just for our teammates, but for our coaches, too.’ These coaches are doing everything in their power to put us in a successful situation. So there’s a lot of trust and there’s a lot of that sentiment with our organization.
II: That's pretty unique. It almost sounds like how guys feel about their high school and college coaches before they start paying you to play.
HS: It’s not fake. We all want to win, and we know the best way to do that is to play together. Our whole team has a great desire to win, not just for ourselves, but for our coaches.
II: So when you went into draft day, did you expect or did you know you were going to be a first-round pick?
HS: My agent, who is a Domer, Brian Murphy, said he thought I was going to go to the Vikings with the 35th pick. I really thought I was going to go late-second round, third round. I didn’t want to build myself up to go so high and then not go until much later. That happens to a lot of guys.
It really couldn’t have gone better for me. My agent had an idea it would be the Vikings and I said, ‘I don’t know why you think it’s the Vikings. They haven’t talked to me since the Senior Bowl.’ I guess they wanted to keep it quiet if the possibility came up.
II: Did it help having (Notre Dame alums John) Sullivan and (Kyle) Rudolph around as you made the transition to the NFL/Vikings?
HS: Absolutely, especially right when I came in. I kind of hung around them. I actually lived in Rudy’s basement my first year in the league. Him and his wife always called me their roomie.
Even though I was older than Kyle and a year ahead of him in school, he had that experience in the league and just kind of showed me the ropes. Same with Sully. Sully was a fifth-year senior when I came to Notre Dame and now he’s entering his ninth year. It’s pretty wild.
It definitely helps to have those guys show you the right way to do things. It makes life a lot easier.
II: It wasn’t always easy for you at Notre Dame in terms of preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman in 2007, playing on some losing teams and even trying to adapt to linebacker.
HS: I look back on it a lot and I have mixed memories. I don’t regret anything about Notre Dame. I loved it. I wouldn’t pick another school to go to. I would never go anywhere else. The experiences helped me grow up, not only on the field, but off the field. They work together.
Everybody is the man in high school. Everybody that goes to Notre Dame is the best player on his high school team. You’re used to that level of play. In high school, you’re always making plays. Then you go to Notre Dame and everybody is like that. So you have to take it up another step.
II: Few people got the short end of the stick at Notre Dame like Harrison Smith in terms of missing out on prosperous times. You came to Notre Dame after 9-3 and 10-3 seasons in in 2005-06. Then you were part of a five-year stretch in which you lost 31 games. The year after you left for the NFL, Notre Dame played for the national title. You deserved a helluva lot better.
HS: (Laughing) We had the idea we were going to win the national championship with the guys I came in with and we didn’t get the job done. Those are the things I remember, and it was things like that that inspired me to get better.
In the pros, when you make it to the playoffs, that doesn’t happen every year for most teams. So you have to take advantage of it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
II: What is your opinion as to why the Weis era took such a fall after winning 19 games his first two years?
HS: I don’t think I can fairly speak on that because Coach Weis went to back-to-back BCS bowls right before I got there. He had success.
I’ve never been a coach. I don’t know how it is. I don’t know how to run a staff. I don’t know how to coordinate everything.
As a player, I just remember not making enough plays when I was there. Collectively, we didn’t make enough plays to be as good as we wanted to be. I don’t think I’m really qualified to speak on it. We got better during Coach Kelly’s first two years there.
II: What positives did Coach Kelly bring to the equation?
HS: He brought a lot of things. His organization. He had a good understanding that we needed a training table at the Gug. The demands that are placed on the athletes and going to study hall and getting your studies done…You need more calories. That sounds like a small thing, but it’s significant.
In accordance with Coach Kelly, Paul Longo does a really good job with the workouts. He had us in great shape and he’s continued that. I remember cramping up the first couple weeks because of the amount of plays we’d run in practice. That prepared you to play a whole game.
Being able to play (defensive back) for Chuck Martin was why I got drafted as high as I did, in my opinion. I was lucky to play for him. With Jon Tenuta, I went back and forth between positions, and I really ended up spending a lot of time with Tenuta, playing mostly linebacker and then some nickel.
Learning the game from his point of view and the defenses that he liked to run at the linebacker spot gave me an understanding of what (linebackers are) thinking and what they have to do pre-snap -- knowing where the safeties are around him and knowing how to play in the box a little better. That’s helped me in the NFL.
Now when I come down in the box, I feel I can mesh with the backers. I’m more comfortable communicating with the safety and pointing something out. It made me a more complete player, not just playing linebacker, but being around Tenuta and his knowledge of the game and the way he sees the game.
Everybody sees the game differently, and there’s not necessarily one right or wrong way. You can be successful in any type of scheme. Playing in different systems and spots gives you a better understanding. Hanging around Tenuta – and I still stay in contact with him today – has helped my still-limited knowledge of the game.
II: In addition to Tenuta nicknaming you Hayseed, there was Manti Te’o coming into an interview one day and suddenly referring to you as Harry. The first reaction was, “Who’s Harry?”
HS: (Laughing) Most people do call me Harry now. Maybe Manti started it. Most of the guys with the Vikings call me Harry. Even our radio voice, Paul Allen, calls me Harry. It’s kind of stuck with me ever since Manti.
II: You’ve come a long way since going from Knoxville to South Bend. You were painfully shy the first few times you spoke to the media at Notre Dame. Your hair was long and you kind of hid behind it the first few times you conducted interviews. Notre Dame must have helped you come out of your shell.
HS: Absolutely. There are a lot of things that Notre Dame does that contributes to that. No. 1, and I think it’s awesome, they don’t put us with other football players to live with. That seems like a small thing, and sometimes it’s a pain because you’re on different schedules. But to this day, one of my best friends is my roommate from New Jersey. He actually interned at my sports agency and is now in law school. He was with me the night I signed my contract.
Having a bigger frame group -- normally you just hang out with football players -- helps you communicate with everybody.
Notre Dame being a difficult school academically prepares you. They do a great job training you for the media, and that’s huge. Not necessarily always saying the company line because that gets boring. But knowing what you’re going to say. You don’t have to answer every question if you don’t want to. It just helped make me think before I spoke.
That’s something that I think the Vikings’ PR guys appreciate about not only Notre Dame, but other schools as well. They don’t have to watch over you because we’re not going to act crazy.
When I went to Notre Dame, I was obviously very shy and quiet. But they helped me come out of my shell, not only in interviews, but communicating with a roommate that I wasn’t used to being around, in the classroom…Having to communicate with a big-time media crew became much easier. It’s another thing that’s great about Notre Dame.
It’s hard to break out of that shell. It’s a comfort zone and you haven’t had to break out of it up to that point. But once you start doing your business school presentations and your group projects, you better know how to communicate.
II: Coming from Knoxville, how tough was it to choose Notre Dame over the Vols and some others?
HS: It was tough for me. I visited other places and wanted to learn about other places. But in my heart, it was Tennessee and Notre Dame.
I grew up a big-time Tennessee fan right in Knoxville. I went to a ton of home games. I went to every home game when they won the national championship in ’98. I had a pretty good understanding of the history of Tennessee.
But at the end of the day, once I went up to Notre Dame, I had made up my mind. Everything seems so far away when you’re in high school. The world seems so big. But going away to school is one of the best choices you can make. Going to Notre Dame not only wasn’t in my hometown, but everything they had going on with football looks great at the time, and it was.
The school was a huge factor in terms of academics. There were so many things that were positive about it. There were positives about Tennessee. It’s just hard to turn Notre Dame down, no matter where you’re from.