It's not often a team loses its best player, replaces him with a player who last manned the position three seasons prior, and the position is still considered a team strength.
David Bruton was Notre Dame's best defensive back, defensive player, and likely, football player in 2008. Harrison Smith was a converted safety playing strong side linebacker, an athlete forced into a role closer to the line of scrimmage due to lack of able bodies at the position. Now Smith is back in his natural FS role, Bruton's former domain, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone close to the program that thinks a drop-off at the position will be a major issue.
Is it blind faith? For the answer, consider Smith's crash course at SLB in '08 and then the final product: He led the defense in tackles for loss (8.5); he tied for the team lead in sacks (3.5) and yardage lost (26); and he finished third on the squad in passes defended (8) and in solo stops (39). Throw in the team's longest run from scrimmage (sad, but true), a 35-yard sprint on a fake punt at Washington and you can begin to understand what Harrison Smith brings to a team…he's a Football Player.
Smith is back where he belongs in '09 and his cross-training at SLB in '08 could eventually result in the best combination of athleticism and physical play seen in the Irish secondary since former S Glenn Earl's sterling 2002 campaign. Where Smith will likely encounter a new challenge is mastering the nuances of the safety position in major college football – a level in which every receiver can run, and a level in which the proper angle is as important as the burst of speed that follows.
A player that made his mark near the line of scrimmage last season now roams the back line of the Irish secondary. Smith's the last line of defense and the man responsible for erasing, or limiting the errors made in front of him. It was an aspect of the game in which Bruton remained undervalued even as a senior. And the most important aspect on which Smith must focus before Nevada comes to town on September 5.
Smith's Season Outlook:I've heaped ample praise upon Smith, a first-time secondary starter. And it's important to remember that David Bruton, while not the most physical DB in Irish history, was a special athlete at the position (I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but last year, 75% of the earth was covered by water… the rest was covered by David Bruton). Don't expect Harrison Smith – the finished product – to take the field at FS in September. But the man they call Hayseed could be an Irish fan favorite by season's end.
Finally, at the end of last season I did not list Smith as one of (my) top 10 Irish performers for 2008, due largely to the two costly (as in, "season-crippling) penalties you'll see listed below. After further review, I now believe I undervalued his role and that he was among the top 10 contributors of '08.
Smith's Best Moments of 2008:
- Recording at least one tackle behind the line of scrimmage in six consecutive contests (UNC, Washington, Pittsburgh, BC, Navy, and Syracuse).
- In Week 3, with MSU facing a 3rd and goal at the ND one-yardline, Smith combined with his namesakes (Scott and Brian) to force the action on the strong side of the Spartans offense and knock RB Javon Ringer for a 5-yard loss. The effort helped hold the Spartans to a field goal and manageable 16-7 deficit for the Irish with more than nine minutes remaining.
- Accounting for five tackles and three passes defended in the Bowl Game beat down of Hawaii.
- After taking a 7-0 lead in the Week Two battle with Michigan, Smith combined with gunner Mike Anello to recover a muffed kick return. The Irish scored on a 10-yard pass from Jimmy Clausen to Duval Kamara for a 14-0 advantage en route to the 35-20 drubbing of the Wolverines.
Smith's Two Major Moments to Forget in 2008:
- A ridiculous personal foul penalty in the opening series of the second half vs. Pittsburgh. The mental error gave the Panthers a new set of downs, an eventual touchdown, and most importantly, provided Pitt with their first bit of momentum since leaving the team bus.
- Smith committed a crucial 15-yard pass interference penalty on 3rd and 9 at the Notre Dame 39 with just over three minutes remaining in the upset home loss to Syracuse. The Orange capitalized with a game-tying touchdown pass (and subsequent extra point) just five players later.