#7 Harrison Smith – Strong SafetyHis new head coach laid down the gauntlet during the spring session's first press conference, noting that the senior-to-be "never would have been an outside ‘backer in our system. He never fit that prototype for us." Adding, "If he can't play safety (for Kelly) he can't play."
Smith's job responsibilities next fall differ from the free safety role he occupied during the first six games of 2009. But Irish fans have yet to see Smith enjoy a modicum of success along the back line. Instead, the vision of a confused Smith allowing an uncontested touchdown near the goal line vs. Boston College; or the purported "best athlete on the team" scrambling after USC tight end Anthony McCoy 50 yards downfield remains etched in their minds.
With a new position and opportunity, Smith's an intriguing prospect for 2010 and beyond. But the Irish have two up-and-coming competitors behind him in Zeke Motta and Dan McCarthy. Neither matches the senior's level of athleticism. Conversely, Smith's athleticism has not yet translated to the football field (I have a feeling Smith will showcase an off-the-charts workout at the NFL Combine in February 2012.)
Questions in need of answers: Smith has two seasons of eligibility remaining, and his body type certainly suggests safety rather than outside linebacker. Do his football instincts match his frame? He seemed much more comfortable near the line of scrimmage in a roving, attack role; is that what defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has planned for Smith? Smith can turn and run with most; does he have the ball skills (0 career interceptions) to compete in his new role? Will Smith be used in a punt return role, and can success in that realm translate to confidence defensively?
With two spread offenses on tap to begin the '10 season, we should know quickly whether Smith the strong safety will thrive, or if reinforcements will be needed.
#6 Chuck Martin – Defensive Backs CoachOnly in the internet age could a team's position coach appear on such a list.
The former Grand Valley State grand champion inherits a unit afforded less goodwill from a legion of fans than any other in recent memory.
Considered one of the best position groups on the team heading into the 2009 season, the Irish secondary laid a colossal egg, finishing 76th nationally in pass defense (227.50 yards allowed per game) and more important, 82nd in pass efficiency D.
This effort despite the benefit of facing new starting quarterbacks in five of the season's first seven contests and seven first-time signal callers over the course of the season (eight if you include the tandem from Michigan State).
The Irish simply could not get off the field last season (67th in 3rd Down defense) and managed just 12 interceptions vs. 17 touchdowns allowed. (Nearly half of those 12 picks left campus along with 5th-year senior safety Kyle McCarthy.
Enter Martin, architect of two Division II national titles at Grand Valley State and winner of more than 91 percent of his games over a six-year span. While the bottom-line statistics of the unit are sobering, the talent level, at least among the first unit, appears on par with any on the Irish schedule.
Cornerbacks Darrin Walls and Robert Blanton both enjoyed success early in their careers. Fellow CB Gary Gray emerged as perhaps the team's best DB by the end of last season, and – projecting far ahead – FS Jamoris Slaughter is the post-spring candidate for a Most Improved Award at the conclusion of 2010. Add to the mix Harrison Smith (above) and Martin's first unit boasts 113 games played, 62 starts, and enough battle scars to make Jack Bauer shift in his seat.
Confusion regarding assignments and scheme responsibilities reigned along the back line in 2009 and the defensive backs served as collective whipping boys for Notre Dame fans over a frustrating 12-game slate. Victorious in 122 of his last 135 contests; developer of 34 All-Americans and an astounding 114 players that received All-Conference honors (since 2004!), Chuck Martin is charged with turning a clear weakness into team strength by next September.
Thanks to recruiting services that awarded 20 stars to his five-man first unit (and 28 total if you include its two prime backups), it's actually expected of him.
Only in the Internet age…
#5 Brian Smith – Outside LinebackerSomewhere between late October 2008 and last November, Brian Smith lost his identity as a polarizing figure among Irish followers. During his sophomore season of '08 and early last year, Smith's ardent supporters saw a passionate, high-energy, legacy linebacker that wore his emotions on his sleeve and attempted to inspire his teammates with his bravado and effort.
Critics saw a young player who had yet to embrace the intricacies of his craft, played out of position, and that unfortunately had trouble backing up his significant squawking on the field.
Consecutive mediocre seasons took a toll on the goodwill that once surrounded Smith and he was panned routinely on Irish message boards. In his final season, the senior has moved to an outside linebacker role – one for which he was recruited.
He was singled out by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for his skill set and body type. He was commended by his position coach, Kerry Cooks late in the spring session, and following the Blue Gold Game, head coach Brian Kelly noted Smith as one of two players that need not come off the field on third down - a "drop" linebacker that excels in space.
From this writer/fan/critic's perspective, Smith is the one player on the team I could see emerge as the MVP on his side of scrimmage, or conversely, spend the second-half of the season watching a younger, talented teammate perform in his stead.
I know he studies his craft as much as any player on the team (honestly, I believe Smith is a greater student of the game than any, but I'm sure others compare and simply discuss it less openly). Smith has flashed big play ability for three years – the 2010 defense needs him to play consistent football for 13 games next fall and over the Holiday Season.
Note: A Pre-Camp Assessment for Harrison Smith is scheduled for later this month while Brian Smith's Assessment won't appear until late June.
Still to Come: Four Irish personalities on which the spotlight will shine the brightest next fall.