Ronald Johnson streaks through the misty autumn night. Harrison Smith slips. These words were to Notre Dame fans what "Down goes Frazier" was to the Frazier camp. And just as Frazier eventually got back up to take on Muhammad Ali in the Thrill in Manila, Harrison Smith picked himself up to fight again.
Harrison Smith's first three years at Notre Dame were difficult to say the least. Smith endured multiple defensive-coaching staff shuffles and position switches. He withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous Notre Dame fans irate with his seeming inability to prevent the big play. Then on a cold, rainy fall eve in 2010, he picked himself up off of the rainy turf after very nearly letting SC receiver Ronald Johnson get by him for the game-winning score and SC's 9th-straight win over the Irish. Three plays later Smith intercepted Mitch Mustain to ice the win. In many ways this series encapsulated Smith's career. If failure is not in falling down but in not getting back up, Harrison Smith got up, brushed off the cold November rain, and found success.
Athleticism. Smith stands at 6'2", 214. He looks and tackles like a 4-3 outside linebacker, but runs and leaps like a true free safety. Smith's athleticism is perhaps the main reason that Mike Mayock is so bullish on Smith as an early-round NFL draft pick.
Physicality. Head Coach Brian Kelly has said that Harrison Smith has really improved his physicality this year. Last year no one feared getting hit by number 22. This year Smith is making opposing offenses take note of his hitting ability. While the Irish have yet to face a truly pass-happy attack, Harrison Smith has impressed Irish fans by knocking heads in the run game. More than once Smith has gone low and helicoptered opposing offensive players. And Smith, unlike some of his linebacker counterparts, has been a sure tackler while delivering the death blow.
Awareness. It is no coincidence that Notre Dame has given up very few explosive passing plays this season. True, Notre Dame's fourth-quarter secondary play against Michigan was regrettable to say the least, and the Notre Dame defense gave up some big plays to Robert Woods. This Irish defense's bend-don't-break approach has led to much consternation among Irish fans, but the Irish faithful are hard-pressed to think of many big plays given up by the Notre Dame defense. Much like it is a compliment to an offensive lineman that his name is not being called, that Harrison Smith has not been mentioned much in the passing game is a credit to his ability to prevent the big play downfield.
Mental Toughness and Leadership. Few players have made a turnaround as stark as Harrison Smith. The perennial whipping boy and scapegoat for all problems defensive during his first two years on the field, Smith has become a team captain, an All-American-caliber safety, and a stalwart for the Irish over the last two years. Irish fans are left wondering what impact he could have made in his first three years with more consistent coaching.
After Brian Kelly's Twitter-Gate non-controversy controversy, it might be tempting to put Leadership in the Weakness category. Coach Kelly lauded "his" recruits while saying that the "other guys... are coming along." But if Brian Kelly has ever had an issue with Harrison Smith's leadership, he hasn't said it, nor has he suggested, intimated, inferred, or implied it. All we know is that Harrison Smith is a team captain, and he's led Notre Dame from its worst defensive season ever in 2009 to a 2011 season in which the Irish are ranked 27th in scoring defense against the country's 25-toughest schedule.
Notre Dame's defense has held its opponents' scoring to 69% of their season average, a statistic in which Harrison Smith has played no small part.
Harrison Smith's play this year has made it extremely difficult to pin-point a crack in the armor. He has truly played very well in all aspects of his game. Irish fans would love to see more interceptions and passes defended, but Notre Dame's opponents just have not tested Smith very much as a pass defender. Smith's most glaring weakness would be his and his counterparts' play in the fourth quarter against Michigan. And perhaps Smith could have helped out on Robert Woods, but that may not have been his defensive assignment.
What are Smith's Keys to the Game?
Harrison Smith needs only to continue his strong play. The Irish defense likely hopes to be able to shut down the zone-read without Smith's help, but this is sometimes a tall order. Smith must remain disciplined, prevent the big play, and continue to deliver punishing blows in the run game.