They ran. They hit. They pressured the QB. And comparatively they had no idea what they were doing and ultimately struggled along with the rest of their not-ready-for-prime time classmates.
Two years later, the junior tandem has emerged as leaders on the team's (again) young front seven. Both are ready to use their game experience to lead the Irish defense this fall.
Defensive End Kerry Neal
On playing with his hand on the ground:
"I did it in high school, that was my job, and I've pretty much done that since I've been down here – I've been a down lineman; a D-End. I used to drop more into coverage, and I'll still drop some because we all do (in the defensive scheme) but that's the great part of it, I can show my versatility."
(A related note) On diagnosing the screen game as a pass-rusher:
"It's true, sometimes I'd think ‘man, I just blew past this guy' (opposing tackle) and you realize now that maybe he let me go by. It's something that once you've watched film and watch the (opposing) tackle you get a better feel for what the offense is trying to do, when they're trying to screen (pass) you."
On playing the run as well as the pass:
"That's part of football – you can't be just a speed guy. When I'm in the weight room with coach (Ruben) Mendoza trying to perfect my game…it's not about just being a third down or second down pass rusher – it's about trying to be an all around player.
On any individual goals outside of winning:
"Man to be honest, I haven't even thought about that. I just want to win and lead the team; be a leader of my D-Line."
Weakside linebacker Brian Smith:
On Coach Weis as the right man for the job (not my question):
"He's a Notre Dame guy – he went here, he bleeds blue and gold and he loves his program and he's going to do everything he can to make things successful and that's what I want as a head coach."
Weighing his current level of experience compared to his early playing time:
"It was difficult (playing vs. seniors) but we were good enough to be on the field, so we're good enough not to make any excuses at that point and time. Now we can look back and say ‘We have the experience that we didn't have' but at the same time we were on the field…we can't make any excuses because we were out there and when you're out there you gotta play to win. You can't fall back on any excuses like (lack of) experience."
"And now we have the experience so there's definitely no excuses."
Regarding the never-ending learning curve:
"Even last year against Hawaii I'd look at film and think ‘What was I doing?' (on that play) and you have to try to get better…to have the personal knowledge of what I did wrong and what I did right and focus on doing things the right way."
After acknowledging he'd play anywhere to help the team, I asked Smith what he thought about playing weakside linebacker:
"I like it because I'm covered up by Ethan Johnson, a great defensive lineman, so I get to roam around and run around and make tackles.
"I like to play in space; I like to play up in the box…I definitely like it, selfishly I like it."
On the competition at the linebacker position – specifically Darius Fleming's transition:
"Everything is going well – Darius – I've never seen someone play D-Line and come grasp the linebacker position so well. He was out all spring because of shoulder surgery but he took notes and was very attentive in the spring so now it's like he never missed a beat. He's ready to play – he's champing at the bit. So are guys like Kerry (Neal), too. He was out for the spring but he's ready to go.
(When asked about his possible nickel linebacker partner):
"Guys gotta prove to Coach Tenuta who should be on the field. And whoever proves it to Coach will be on the field."