This spring, head coach Charlie Weis has been implementing what he calls a "three-safety" defensive set. In this system, Weis replaces one of the four linebackers with player like Harrison Smith. Smith is small enough to play safety, yet physical enough to play linebacker. Last year, Weis said, teams were able to come out lined up with multiple receivers and force the Irish defense to spread out. With an undersized defense on the field, opponents were then able to run up with middle with ease. With Smith on the field, though, that isn't going to happen anymore.
"We got mismatched a little bit [last year]," Weis said. "And Harrison Smith seems to be the guy that can answer a lot of those questions for us."
Smith was able to show off his new position Saturday at Notre Dame's annual spring game. The rising sophomore finished with five tackles and an interception, which he returned 15 yards for the touchdown. Even though his Gold team lost the game, Smith was named Defensive MVP.
"I didn't think I'd hear [my name called] that much," he said. "I think actually a couple of times [the tackles] belonged to Kyle [McCarthy], they kind of mix us up, but it was just good to get out there and finally make some plays."
Smith certainly made some plays. On the interception, just over three minutes into the second half, quarterback Jimmy Clausen was trying to find tight end Mike Ragone on a short out route. Smith, in coverage, read the route perfectly and jumped in front of Clausen's pass. He then took off for the end zone, dragging Ragone with him for part of the way. When he reached the goal line, Smith finished off his highlight with a half-dive, half-somersault into the endzone.
"It was a basic call," he said of the interception. "Ragone ran an out route and I just kind of waited on the ball, kind of just got set up, and I took advantage of it."
After the touchdown, a skirmish ensued between the offensive and defensive players. Even though Smith notched the score to set off the fracas, he had no clue what was going on.
"I didn't even notice," he said. "I started running off the field and I saw the coaches coming out. I thought they were mad at me. So I looked back, and I saw there was a big fight."
When asked about his celebratory dive, Smith just laughed and said, "I was just having fun."
The Knoxville, Tenn. native should be having a lot more fun this year. Last season, Smith played on the show team, giving the offensive starters practice for their next game.
"Obviously you try to help the team in practice by doing show team and all that stuff," he said. "But finally getting out there and playing with the big boys is a lot of fun."
The fun he is having now is the result of months of hard work by Smith. Playing both safety and linebacker means that he has to know the roles of both positions, and memorize twice as many coverages. But so far, he says, it's been a manageable transition.
"[I'm] Just talking to coach Tenuta when I'm playing linebacker, talking to coach Brown when I'm playing safety," he said. "They just keep me going, try to give me tips I can do.
"I really just get in the books a lot, try to know my assignments, and a lot of it carries over [from safety to linebacker], so really it's not that drastic of a change."
Smith's work ethic is not lost on his teammates. Linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr., who was just named defensive captain for the second year in a row, said that Smith "always works hard, never backs down from contact, and if he messes up, he won't mess up twice."
Smith's fellow safety David Bruton also praised Smith's learning ability.
"I give him advice," Bruton said. "But he's on top of his stuff himself. He's in the playbook every day. He takes good notes. He does the little things he needs to do to get right. He's taken on a huge task, learning four positions — strong [safety], free [safety], Sam [linebacker], and Jack [linebacker]. He's taken on a lot and he's handling it pretty well."
To go along with his desire to improve himself, Smith's natural athletic ability continues to wow his coaches and teammates.
"Harrison's just a heck of an athlete," Crum said. "You've got to find a way to get him on the field, and he's tough. He can play in the box, he can play safety, he can probably do whatever he wanted."
Bruton even joked that "we could put him on the line, he'd probably do something there."
Because of that athletic ability, plus the work he's put in on the practice field this spring, Smith's tremendous spring game came as no surprise to Bruton.
"I expected him to make plays because that's what he's done on a regular basis," Bruton said. "You expect nothing less of him than to go out there and make plays no matter where he's lined up."
Smith said he hopes to use this positive Blue-Gold Game as a springboard into 2008— wherever he ends up on the field.
"I just gain some confidence from it," he said. "[I'm going to] watch the films, see what I did wrong, correct that, and then just sort of reinforce what I did right and try and keep it rolling into next season."
Smith Named Defensive MVP
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