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Football: Smith and Neal provide spark for defense

Chris Khorey | Friday, October 19, 2007

Brian Smith and Kerry Neal broke the defensive huddle and headed to the line of scrimmage.

The two freshmen outside linebackers usually play on opposite sides of the defense, but on this play Saturday, defensive coordinator Corwin Brown had them line up together. Neal got into a three-point stance over Boston College left tackle Gosder Cherilus, while Smith lined up a couple feet inside him, leaning forward and threatening to blitz.

At the snap, Neal blew past the tackle on the outside. Cherilus dropped well off the line to cut him off, and safety Tom Zbikowski blitzed through the newly created gap.

Smith, however, did not blitz. Using the quickness that earned him his scholarship offer last winter, he backpedaled into pass coverage.

Eagles quarterback Matt Ryan saw Zbikowski flying toward him and got rid of the ball, but he never saw Smith, who intercepted it and returned it for a touchdown.

The play looked beautiful from the stands, but the secret is that Smith wasn’t where he was supposed to be – and neither was anyone else.

“We blew the coverage,” fifth-year senior linebacker Joe Brockington said. “None of us were in the right spot.”

But whether or not Smith knew what he was supposed to do on that particular play, it still illustrates what he and Neal bring to the Notre Dame defense. That kind of dynamic play has earned the two freshmen more time on the field in recent games.

In recent weeks, Neal earned a starting spot at outside linebacker, and Smith, who plays on passing downs, became the first freshman in 31 years to return an interception for a touchdown.

“I can’t talk enough about them,” head coach Charlie Weis said. “I keep on saying how the arrow is pointing up on them.”

Despite weighing 233 and 245 pounds, respectively, Neal and Smith bring an element of speed to the edge that the Irish haven’t had since Justin Tuck was lining up at defensive end.

“They’ve brought a different dimension that coming into the season we weren’t sure they could provide,” Brown said.

But it’s not just their speed that has impressed the coaching staff.

“They play this game with passion, and I think that any time you play the game with passion and have some athleticism, OK, you have a chance to be something special, and I think that both those guys have a chance to be,” Weis said. “When it’s all said and done, by the time they leave here, they’ll be household names.”

So far this season, Neal has appeared in every game, starting three of them. He has eight tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. Smith has played in six games and has had 10 tackles, including two for loss, along with his interception.

Neal and Smith also provide position versatility. Both have lined up at inside and outside linebacker as well as in a three-point stance along the defensive line. On one play in the Boston College game, Smith even lined up at nose guard.

Brown said putting Smith on the inside on third-and-long is something the Irish are considering going forward.

“If he lined up there, we’re thinking about doing it,” he said.

Coming into fall camp, Brown said, the Irish coaching staff wasn’t sure whether Neal and Smith would be ready.

“You’d like to think that they could do some things, but they’ve done things we weren’t expecting,” Brown said.

Brockington said the two freshmen have a bright future.

“Now, they’re pretty good players,” Brockington said. “But in the future once they’ve settled in they’re going to be really good.”