Becoming a Playmaker

Even though he didn't receive a formal scholarship offer until February of his senior year in high school, Brian Smith never doubted that he could play for Notre Dame. Now, the sophomore has an opportunity to be a force on the Irish defense.

It's amazing how things can change in 14 months.

In January, 2007, Brian Smith was verbally committed to Iowa and excited to become a Hawkeye. Flash forward to March, 2008. Smith is listed as the starting outside linebacker on Notre Dame's pre-spring depth chart, coming off a strong freshman season for the Irish.

"When Notre Dame decided not to offer me at first, it was like, ‘OK, it's whatever. I didn't fit in their plans,'" Smith said. "And I just took it with a grain of salt and then moved on."

Smith admitted that he thought the offer would never come from the school he had always wanted to attend. But it finally did.

"They offered me late and I was excited about that," Smith said. "I had to hurry up and jump on ship while I could."

Soon after head coach Charlie Weis offered, Smith decommitted form Iowa and signed on to join the Irish. He said that despite the late offer, he always knew that he could play for Notre Dame.

"I knew I could play," Smith said. "I felt, myself, that I could play anywhere in the world."

Smith translated that self-confidence into lots of early playing time in 2007. As a freshman outside linebacker, Smith played in 11 games, starting 3, and racked up 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Smith, though, thinks his expectations of himself weren't high enough last year.

"Last year, you know, I was just excited to be on the field," Smith said. "I was happy with how I played, but there was always room for improvement and every week I tried to get better."

This offseason, Smith focused himself on getting better and, instead of just seeing the field, making big contributions for the Irish defense next season. Smith said he focused on improving his strength and speed, aspects stressed by new linebackers coach Jon Tenuta.

"Coach Tenuta always says you've got to play with your eyes and your hands and your feet so I've been working on all those things," Smith said.

While working with Tenuta is sometimes difficult, Smith loves his new coach's intensity.

"He's in your face," Smith said of Tenuta. "He's going to let you know what you're doing wrong and he's not going to let you know what you're doing good because he doesn't want you to get content, and I like that."

Smith thinks his skill set will fit well in Tenuta's aggressive, blitz-happy defense.

"I'm very excited," Smith said. "That's my kind of play. I like getting after the quarterback as well as dropping in pass coverage and it allows me to do both those things."

Smith's talent and work ethic aren't lost on Tenuta, who is excited to have him as a part of his linebacking corps.

"Brian's a good football player," Tenuta said. "I mean he's got tremendous upside."

Part of that football skill may be genetic, as Smith isn't the first in his family to put on the gold helmet. Brian's father, Chris, played football under Gerry Faust from 1981-1984. Brian said he and his father have a strong relationship, and that he doesn't feel any added pressure being the son of a former Notre Dame football player.

"My father and I, he always expects the best of me," Smith said. "[But] he often tells me I'm the hardest critic on myself, so I don't think there's any pressure coming from him at all."

Pressure may be coming from within, though, as Smith isn't the only promising young linebacker in the Irish locker room. Kerry Neal, Smith's former roommate, also looks to make some noise in 2008. Smith and Neal roomed together when the two first arrived at Notre Dame last summer, and have been friends ever since.

"Me and Kerry, we're real cool," Smith said. "Our personalities kind of matched right off the bat."

Smith said that the chemistry helps the two make plays on the field. Through something as slight as a motion of the eyes, the two can communicate and help each other make plays.

"Now we're on the field together," Smith said. "It's understood between us both and we're just out there trying to do our best."

Smith said that playing together was something he and Neal talked about from when they first met in June.

"We always talked about playing together and how fun it would be to have two freshman on the field, on the end, rushing the quarterback at the same time," Smith said. "Lucky for us, we made that happen."

Smith also said that the duo's playing styles complimented one another, with Neal being a better pass rusher and Smith being more adept in coverage. He said the two constantly give each other advice to try and improve one another's game.

For both Smith and Neal, this year is their first experience with spring football at Notre Dame. So far, Smith said, it's been a positive experience.

"It's been good," Smith said. "You know, we've been banging the last couple of days, kind of taking a toll on the body, but it's all for the good."

As for his role in the defense this season, while he realizes that fifth-year senior Maurice Crum, Jr. is the chief of the linebacking unit, Smith is ready to take on an increased leadership role at his position.

"I just want to be a guy on the side, a role player, who leads by example," Smith said. "Maybe throw in a few words here and there to hype the team up."

Crum, too, expects big things from Smith.

"You can tell when a guy has talent, and Brian has talent," Crum said. "Now you're seeing the talent come out more because he's more relaxed and he's comfortable in what he can do."

Smith is ready to let his skills loose this season, and looks to wreak havoc on opposing offenses in 2008.

"This year, [I'm] going in with the mindset that I've got to be way better than last year," Smith said. "Because last year I was just content with being on the field. Now I need to build on that so I can become a playmaker on the field." Top Stories