The Notre Dame secondary had well-publicized breakdowns last season, many it appeared, the result of failed or hurried pre-snap communication among its safeties and cornerbacks.
First-year starting free safety Harrison Smith was involved in his share of faulty communicative efforts last fall and Irish fans took notice.
The redshirt-junior was part of noticeable (and key) coverage breakdowns vs. Michigan (didn't appear to be his fault), Michigan State (20/80), Purdue (a team-wide effort), Washington (50/50), USC (90/10), and Boston College (99/1). Regardless of where blame should lie, it's telling that Smith was involved in each of the coverage mishaps.
The player lauded as one of the team's two best athletes by his teammates performed tentatively – a case of paralysis by analysis that played out in front of Notre Dame's frustrated fan base as the defense suffered repeated back line errors with Smith as the secondary's quarterback.
Worse, he tackled poorly (it was contagious) and failed to pick off a single pass as a free safety starter that played the better part of 23 quarters.
2009 Take II: React or Attack?One week after his toughest outing of the season vs. USC, Smith returned to a hybrid linebacker/nickel safety role he previously occupied in 2008 – one that placed him closer to the line of scrimmage where former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta could take advantage of his athleticism and ability to explode in short space.
Though the move may have contributed to a weakened overall Irish run defense late last season, it served as a personal boon for Smith, who registered five of his six tackles-for-loss; three of his four pass breakups, and his only forced fumble of the season playing closer to the line of scrimmage over the season's final six contests.
In fact, statistically, Smith ranks among the most accomplished returning players on the 2010 defense:
- First in tackles-for-loss: Smith has 15 career TFL (13.5 registered as a linebacker in '08 and the latter half of '09) to lead all Irish players.
- Second in total tackles: H-Smith's 126 career stops rank behind only former middle linebacker Brian Smith among returning players.
- Second in passes broken up: Smith's 11 pass breakups (10 as a linebacker) place him second behind 5th-year cornerback Darrin Walls (16).
- Second in career starts: His 21 starts in 25 career games played ties Smith with seniors Kerry Neal and Darrin Walls for second on the squad behind B-Smith's 24 career starting assignments.
- Of note: Cincinnati senior Aaron Webster occupied Smith's strong safety role in Bob Diaco's 2009 defense. Webster started 13 games and finished with 69 total tackles, 2 for loss, with 4 interceptions, 9 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles.)
Further illustrating his athleticism, Smith has the second and seventh-longest runs from scrimmage (35 and 23 yards, both in '08 on fake punts) over the team's last 25 contests. He also has more double-digit tackle games (3) than any other returning defender, posting a team high 11 stops on two occasions last year.
With the exception of one overtime combo hit (with Kyle McCarthy) vs. Washington, Smith's greatest collegiate successes have occurred as a linebacker, and he likely would have returned to that role had the 2009 coaching staff remained employed.
2010: Back line, New Role"He never would have been an outside ‘backer in our system. He never fit that prototype for us. If he can't play safety he can't play. So it was (a pretty easy decision)."
Brian Kelly's first public words regarding Harrison Smith set the course for the redshirt senior's final two seasons. (Smith was withheld from action as a freshman and can apply for a 5th season of eligibility next spring.)
Smith's 2010 role will differ from his previous audition on the back line last year as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's defense will likely employ the strong safety as a versatile hybrid player – one who can attack the line of scrimmage and play in the box when necessary, while also maintaining traditional coverage responsibilities.
"We saw (Smith) out here making some nice cracks," Diaco observed of his auditioning safety early in spring ball. "I went in wondering ‘Is he a decelerator or accelerator; is he a high-contact player?' Well it looks to me like he's a high-contact player."
Smith has generally performed better and looked more comfortable near the line of scrimmage; the role of aggressor (moving forward or laterally) rather than reactive centerfielder seems to suit his thus far developed skill set.
But the senior also realizes he must eliminate the occasional – and crippling – mental errors that popped up at inopportune times during his first two seasons as a contributor.
"There are plays from the year before (2008) that I'm still hot about," Smith admitted when asked a general question about his correctable past mistakes. "I'm mad right now thinking about them."
"I'm of the mindset that I'm not going to be denied," he stated of his outlook on 2010. "I'm not going to let that (poor performance) happen again. That's not what's best for Notre Dame or for me. I want to go in and make plays from the start of the season."
If Smith can combine consistent, snap-to-snap focus while harnessing his rare athleticism, the 2010 Irish defense will find a difference-maker within its ranks.
Smith's Best of 2009
- Michigan: Leading 20-17 early in the 3rd Quarter, Smith shed two blocks to tackle Wolverines tailback Brandon Minor for a two-yard loss on a 3rd and G run at the Irish 5-yard line. Michigan's ensuing field goal attempt sailed wide left; Smith's tackle preserving seven points at a key juncture in the contest.
- Washington: Previously involved in three half-tackles during Notre Dame's 12 plays at the goal line in the second half (in which they allowed just three points), Smith capped off an inconsistent afternoon with a key clean-up hit on the game's final play. With the Huskies facing 4th and 19 from the 34-yard line, Kyle McCarthy absolutely destroyed an open D'Andre Goodwin to jar loose a perfect Jake Locker pass that would have set up Washington with 1st and Goal inside the Irish 5-yard line. Smith helped ensure the incompletion with a second hit on Goodwin.
- Boston College: Two well-timed blitzes in his first '09 contest at linebacker: first, Smith deftly timed a blitz (from 7 yards deep in the secondary) to cause a Montel Harris fumble in the backfield (recovered by BC). Later, Smith jumped over Harris' cut-block attempt to pressure QB Dave Shinskie on a hurried throw.
- Pittsburgh:Though it occurred on a 9-yard gain, Smith flashed his athleticism with a hustling (all the way from a backside blitz) sprint and flying tackle of tailback Dion Lewis. Later, Smith stopped Lewis for a 2-yard loss, shooting the gap on an inside run blitz. Finally, Smith nearly turned the tide of the first half with a well-timed breakup of a lateral pass in the right flat. Smith was a tick away from a leaping, one-handed interception return touchdown after expertly reading the play on the snap.
- Connecticut: 2.5 tackles that limited the runner to one-yard; another stop for a two-yard loss; and a 3rd Quarter QB hurry that led to a punt highlighted Smith's career-best 11-tackle effort in the disheartening 2 OT loss to the Huskies.
Smith's Moments to forget in 2009
- Washington: Leading 24-19 late in the 3rd Quarter, Huskies tailback Carlos Polk gains 41 yards, due largely an unconscionable tackling effort by Smith, who's soft clean-up attempt allowed Polk an additional 30 yards after contact.
- USC: Smith's publicly poor outing likely prompted his move back to linebacker:
Smith was blown up by an Allen Bradford lead block, resulting in an extra 15 yards for tailback Joe McKnight's 23-yard 2nd Quarter run. With the Irish trailing 13-7 early in the 3rd Quarter, Smith committed what I referred to as a "bench-able error", showing poor technique and even worse effort on a sideline "Ole" tackle attempt vs. FB Stanley Havili. Havili gained 19 yards on the play.
Two plays later, the Trojans ran their patented bubble screen and the outnumbered Irish (two defenders vs. three Trojans) gave way to a 41-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Damian Williams in which Smith took a terrible angle and whiffed at Williams en route to the end zone.
As well, a 60-yard catch-and-run by tight end Anthony McCoy was the result of a communication error between Smith and fellow safety Kyle McCarthy.
Boston College: Smith was the victim of pre-snap confusion as the Irish secondary was inexplicably again beaten by the initial cross of same side receivers. Eagles QB Dave Shinskie hit Rich Gunnell for a laughably easy out-route touchdown. Smith covered no one while Blanton cut off Larmond's slant-route. It in no way appeared Blanton was supposed to switch and cover Gunnell's route outside.