Emotion has been an area of emphasis from the Notre Dame coaching staff to its players this year. Fresh off of their most emotional performance of the season, the Irish will get a chance to prove that they can play with that kind of energy on the road and without derogatory comments from the other side.
One of the guys that Charlie Weis and his staff will lean on to be an emotional leader this weekend at North Carolina is sophomore linebacker Brian Smith. Smith says that he has always been an passionate person and admits that he used to cry after losses in Pop Warner.
"Football is an emotional game so it has to be played at an emotional level," he says. "It just comes to me naturally, being emotional."
Before getting to Notre Dame, there were times when his emotions were disadvantageous on the field, but that his coaches have since used it as a positive.
"In high school I got moved to defensive end because I was kind of blowing assignments at linebacker because I was just so aggressive. I'd just go in there and hit anyone and everyone. So they moved me to defensive end so that I could just attack instead of having a certain responsibility," he says. "Now, playing in this kind of a defense that we're in now it's kind of like playing defensive end in high school, I can just attack and not have so many responsibilities to worry about, just go."
Smith recalled a game his senior year against rival Blue Valley High School when his feelings got the best of him.
"While they were running out of the tunnel one of their players punched me in the stomach as they were running by and oh my God, I lost it, like I lost it. My coaches said they'd never seen me act this way," he remembers. "I go out on the field and I'm on the punt team, I'm out in space with this guy and I realized that was the guy who hit me in the stomach. So I let him get past me thinking he beat me and I loop around, I crushed him, I crushed him. I'm on the ground and I'm going nuts, like shaking him out. They threw the flag and it was a bad deal. But I've learned to channel that since then."
Smith learned to control his outbursts through the help of his father and former Notre Dame fullback Chris Smith. While the younger Smith still gets fired up even when he's playing video games, he has learned to use his emotion to his advantage on the field.
"When I'm off the field, you really couldn't tell I play the way I do when I'm on the field. I tell my friends that when I'm between the lines I'm a different kind of guy. Me being emotional, like I am, gives me that edge against opponents," says Smith. "I'm not always going to be the strongest or the biggest guy out there, but me playing with that passion is going to make me better than the guy I'm going against at the end of the day."
As a freshman in 2007, Smith felt out of place showing too much excitement, but feels more freedom in his second year with the team.
"Last year it was hard to be emotional all of the time, but I couldn't help myself on Saturdays. Now I feel as if I can be emotional on the practice field as well," he says. "Get in guys' faces on the practice field as well as on Saturday. You've got to learn your place and feel out things as a freshman, but now I've settled in as a sophomore and I'm comfortable."
By early Saturday morning, the team usually has all of the ammo it needs to take the field.
"We hear every Saturday morning when we wake up on ESPN Gameday or whatever, whether it's Mark May or Lee Corso or any of those guys," says Smith. "One week they said Purdue had better athletes than us, one week they said we're just not good enough to win. We're not good enough, we're not good enough, we're not good enough and we're just sick of hearing that."
Smith and his mates will get the opportunity to shut up May, Corso and any other detractors on Saturday when they take on the 22nd-ranked Tar Heels in their building.
"We just won four straight at home, but we've lost once on the road. We need to prove to ourselves and prove to the rest of the country that we can win on the road," he says.
But North Carolina will present a stiff challenge.
"From the film I've watched, they like to play hard and they play fast," says Smith. "We've got to keep everything going east and west for them because they like to hit it north and south. If they get it up north and south on us it could be dangerous so that's going to be one big thing for us is stopping the run."
What could be dangerous for the Tar Heels would be for Smith and his squad to come out with the same enthusiasm that they did last week and the sophomore expects that to be the case.
"I think I can play with even more emotion on the road because everyone is against you and I love it," he says.