Tailback Ricky Watters was that figure in the early 90s; quarterback Ron Powlus was unwillingly bestowed the mantle later in the decade; Jimmy Clausen from 2007 through the end of his statistically masterful 2009 season. Senior Brian Smith occupies that role today.
At his best (in the early-season destruction of Nevada and vs. USC in the 4th Quarter last fall), Smith is physical, roving, playmaking force – an athlete that leads by example and display an undeniable will to win for his teammates and program.
When he's off his game (as in Navy Debacle 2.0 last November), Smith's pre-game bluster is far more effective than his play between the lines; a linebacker that avoids lead blockers as if he's engaged in a game of freeze tag rather than football
While fans are quick to embrace a team's younger players and wax poetic over their often unfulfilled potential, a senior such as Smith is often pegged as the problem for his team's past struggles.
Back at outside linebacker, that perception of Smith could change by Thanksgiving weekend this fall.
The Evolution of a LinebackerEmbraced as an under-recruited freshman and widely recognized as a cornerstone of the Irish future during the lost season of 2007, Smith made his greatest impact as a pass rusher and an outside playmaker.
His first career interception resulted in a timely touchdown during a comeback attempt vs. recent rival and then-No. 3 ranked Boston College. His first impact play, a behind-the-line tackle of MSU tailback Javon Ringer to force a Spartans punt with the overmatched Irish still close in the contest.
Fans learned early that Brian Smith rarely does things quietly.
Rumblings began to trickle through the fan base after separate incidents of pre-game bravado (if he were an opponent, Irish fans would refer to it as "taunting") the most notable in what became a 17-0 shutout loss at Boston College in 2008.
Some viewed him as a player who could infuse much-needed emotion where it was otherwise lacking; others shook their heads at the bluster and boasting from anyone on a team that had accomplished nothing.
The truth generally lies between, and it's relevant to note that Smith twice (for the 2008 season and the final eight games of 2009) moved to middle linebacker to help the Irish defense. He wasn't a good fit inside, but he was the best option the staff had and Smith showed off-field maturity embracing the role, becoming one of the team's noted students of game film and of his craft.
Whether you nod or shake your head at his antics, rest assured Smith has put in as much work as any player on the team (a one-on-one conversation with Smith last fall revealed he studies tape of overachieving players such as former New York Giants LB Antonio Pierce to better understand the position and help overcome any athletic shortcomings).
This August will continue Smith's assimilation to his fourth defensive scheme in four seasons. His studious efforts in the film room will serve as the spring board for what he believes will be a standout season – his final fall in blue and gold.
What's Past is PrologueIrish fans and daily team media are entitled to their opinions. And Smith's three-year body of work provides plenty of evidence for evaluation. But occasionally it's prudent to hear from those that are closest to the situation:
"I think the middle linebacker is the most important, that's Brian Smith. He's been the key (to the defense's resurgence)." – former defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jon Tenuta last October.
"Brian's attentive, he's built nicely for the structure that we play. He really looks like the profile (outside linebacker) player out there…Brian in particular has transitioned well out there. It really fits with his skill set anyway. He's built for the jobs we've been asking him to do right now." – new defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Bob Diaco.
"I think the outside is better for (Smith) in our system. With his body type; he's profiled for what we're looking for (from an OLB). He's a long guy; he's athletic enough to be able to perform the jobs we ask; and he's comfortable out there. He feels good in space." – new outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks
"Brian is very, very good out at that drop position. We've really helped our pass defense. Both those kids (Manti Te'o included) are really good in 3rd Down situations where you don't have to take them off the field." – head coach Brian Kelly
Diaco's prototype; Cooks' athletic senior leader; Kelly's man in space…Brian Smith is back outside where he belongs.
He's scored touchdowns vs. rivals Boston College and Michigan. He's sealed a game with an interception (BC again) and played the quarter of his life vs. hated USC. He's boasted and barked to fire up teammates but also occasionally failed to back it up. He's leveled runners and then whiffed due to sloppy technique in open space. He's alternately starred and struggled.
Smith, more so than any Irish defender, will be judged by his final season of sound and fury.
Some of the former is fine, but more of the latter is required.
Put Me in CoachBrian Smith has played (34) and started (24) more games than any member of the 2010 Irish. Heading into fall camp, he appears to have finally found a home – back where he began as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
- 2007 3-4 OLB (freshman): 11 games/3 starts; 25 tackles (4 for lost yardage), 1.5 sacks, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble and 25-yard interception return touchdown vs. Boston College.
- 2008 3-4 MLB (sophomore): 11 games/9 starts; 54 tackles, (4 for lost yardage), 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble and 2 fumble recoveries including a 35-yard fumble recovery touchdown vs. Michigan.
- 2009 4-3 WLB/MLB (junior): 12 games/12 starts; 71 tackles, (5.5 tackles for lost yardage), 2 sacks, 3 QB hits, 2 pass breakups, 1 FR and 2 interceptions including the game-sealing pick vs. Boston College. Note: Smith had four tackles for loss in four games as a weak side linebacker, but just 1.5 as a middle linebacker over the final eight contests.
- Career Numbers: 150 tackles (13.5 for lost yardage), 5.5 sacks, 7 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles, 4 pass breakups, 3 fumble recoveries (1 TD), 3 interceptions (1 TD)
Smith at his best in 2009
Three tackles, one at the line of scrimmage and two more that greatly impacted the contest:
- With Notre Dame holding a 7-0 advantage but backed up near its red zone, Smith came off the right edge, shed a chip block and took down Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick trying to escape the pocket for a 5-yard loss.
- One series later with ND holding a 14-0 advantage, Smith stayed home on the weak side to corral one of the nation's best running quarterbacks, Kaepernick, dropping him with a one-on-one tackle in space for a 7-yard loss.
- Washington: On 1st and Goal from the 8-yard line, Smith suffered a stinger on a failed tackle attempt vs. Huskies freshman tailback Chris Polk. Refusing to exit the contest, Smith stopped Polk just short of the goal the ensuing play. The Irish defense held back consecutive QB sneaks and the Huskies were left scoreless at the Notre Dame goal line, still clinging to a 24-19 lead.
Later, with the defense backed up to a 3rd and goal on its two yard line, Smith registered a brilliant Smart football play, drilling to turf Huskies tight end Kavario Middleton who was releasing across the backfield, effectively taking out QB Jake Locker's primary passing option. Locker was forced to tuck and run and stopped short of the goal. One penalty and five downs later, Notre Dame held the Huskies to a field goal to remain in the contest, 27-22.
- USC: Two plays, one series:
- Trailing 34-20 with just over 10 minutes remaining, Smith shot through a gap on the right side for a diving tackle for loss of tailback Joe McKnight trying to turn the corner.
- Two plays later, Smith came on a delayed blitz from the left side, leapt over a cut-block attempt by McKnight and hurried QB Matt Barkley into a pass in the right flat. The deflected ball was picked off by junior cornerback Gary Gray, who returned the offering to the Trojans 14-yard line to set up an Irish touchdown, cutting the lead to 34-27 and setting up the thrilling, if disheartening finish.
- Boston College: He had already recovered a Montell Harris fumble at the Irish goal line, but Smith saved his best play for last. With less than two minutes remaining in the contest and Boston College at the Notre Dame 27-yard line, Eagles QB Dave Shinskie was forced from the pocket by the outside pass rush of sophomore Darius Fleming. Shinskie tried to hit WR Rich Gunnell on a shallow cross (from left to right) but Smith stepped in front of the pass, securing the interception to seal the contest and snap the Eagle's 6-game winning streak vs. the Irish.
Smith's moments to forget from 2009
- Michigan: Midway through the 1st Quarter in a scoreless contest, Smith had a one-on-one shot at freshman QB Tate Forcier on the left edge. Forcier cutback on the hard-charging Smith, forcing a complete whiff by the junior and resulting in an 8-yard gain. The Wolverines continued the drive 79-yard drive, taking a 7-0 early advantage.
- Navy: Posted a team-best 10 tackles (none for loss though two were near the line of scrimmage). Smith's head was on a swivel vs. the Midshipmen triple option attack, the two most damaging errors occurring on huge Navy gains:
- Following a 32-yard run, Navy backup fullback Alexander Teich blew through Smith at the line of scrimmage for a 7-yard gain and Navy first down. Three plays later, starting fullback and game hero Vince Murray ran untouched through the Irish defense for a 25-yard touchdown as Smith vacated his gap and teammate Manti Te'o was controlled by a lead block from the Midshipmen center Eric Douglass. Navy 14 ND 0.
- Following an Irish score that cut the lead to 14-7 near the end of the 3rd Quarter, Murray again found room through the heart of the Irish defense as Smith completely misread the option action of QB Ricky Dobbs, chasing Dobbs left as Murray ran through Smith's vacated gap for a 22-yard gain. Two plays later, Navy delivered with a 52-yard touchdown pass vs. a broken Irish coverage in the confused secondary.
- Pittsburgh: Recorded 7 tackles including four at or near the line of scrimmage, but it was a miss of freshman tailback Dion Lewis that served as a backbreaker. After bouncing off a lead block, Smith had an angle at Lewis in the center of the field. What followed was a quick cut left by Lewis too create space from Smith and a cut back in front of the trailing linebacker. The end result was a 50-yard burst through the defense for a 50-yard score and 27-9 Panthers advantage early in the 4th Quarter.