The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Smith handles position switch with aplomb

Bill Brink | Friday, September 5, 2008

Brian Smith isn’t happy about his nickname.

“Puppy,” he’s called. It started after defensive coordinator Corwin Brown introduced him to coaches at a clinic before he came to Notre Dame. “He’s just a young pup,” Brown said.

The genre is fine; Smith just wants a fiercer canine moniker.

“Rot, Doberman, I don’t care. Just give me a masculine dog name,” Smith said.

Smith, a sophomore, will have a chance to make his case for a more intimidating label tomorrow – and from a new spot on the field. A former outside linebacker, Smith will start this year at middle linebacker along with fifth-year senior Maurice Crum Jr.

He’s not moving too far, about six yards on the field. But he said he handled the transfer well.

“It’s been smoother than expected,” he said. “Playing outside linebacker, you don’t have to know too much. But as a Mike [middle] linebacker, you have to know what’s going on in front of you, behind you, all over the place.”

Assistant head coach/defense Jon Tenuta offered a reason why Smith has made the transition.

“He’s a linebacker, first and foremost,” Tenuta said.

The middle of the field, or “maze,” as Tenuta called it, can be confusing to players who have never played there before, so Smith spent the spring and summer learning – albeit at a slow pace – how to read it. Now, Tenuta said, he has learned how to play at game speed and understand his responsibility.

The Notre Dame defense, Tenuta said, is a gap-fill defense. Each defender is assigned a gap to fill between the opponent’s offensive linemen. None of the players, Tenuta said, will ever have to play two gaps.

“You’re not going to go into a two-gap against a 300-pounder because you’re not going to win,” Tenuta said.

So for Smith, understanding how his gap assignments change as he moves inside is, he said, the biggest mental aspect.

“When you’re playing Sam [outside linebacker] you have one gap,” Smith said. “You just cut the field in half and take the edge. When you’re playing Mike, you can have the A, B, C or D gap.”

Smith has what he called a safety net in Crum, a veteran at middle linebacker with whom he roomed over the summer.

“He’s been a big help. When I’m on the field and I think I know something, I’ll look at Mo and we’ll check it,” Smith said. “He’ll tell me, ‘You’re thinking the right thing.'”

Brown said Smith handled the transition well, and “itched” to get back outside. Any time a young player can do multiple things, he said, it opens up what the defense can do. But Smith can’t learn everything during spring ball, Brown said, and Smith needed to “play his rules” to succeed.

“If I just play my rules, it doesn’t matter what happens around me,” Brown said. “What matters is what the guy over me does and what my rules tell me to do.”

Irish coach Charlie Weis said it’s possible Smith’s itch to get outside will be scratched.

“Before this year’s out, I think you might see him in multiple spots,” Weis said. “You might see him inside. You might see him outside. You might see [both] this week.”

Smith said he relishes the chance to get back outside and looks to capitalize whenever he does.

“In some packages I’m outside, and when I’m outside, I’ll think, ‘Okay, I’m back, let me take it, let me take advantage of it,'” he said. “Every time I’m outside, I try to use my speed against slow offensive tackles. I feel like I can attack from anywhere.”

Smith’s itch isn’t limited to speed rushing outside. He wants to get on the field. He couldn’t sit still, bouncing his knee on the ground and gesturing while answering questions at a press conference Wednesday. Watching football this weekend increased his appetite to play, especially, he said, watching Alabama’s defense.

“I don’t root for teams, I root for defenses,” he said. “When I see a defense that’s on the same page, making plays, being physical and violent, I love that kind of football.”

Smith hopes to replicate that this weekend against San Diego State; when asked about the game, he said, “It’s going to be violent.”

Maybe violent enough to earn himself a new nickname.