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Knoxville native finds home in Indiana

Dan Murphy | Thursday, October 2, 2008

Every fall since he was five years old, Harrison Smith has spent his Saturdays watching Tennessee football with his family. That is until he started playing for the Irish last year.

“Tennessee is a great place,” he said. “Pretty much all my friends go there, my brother and my sister go there, my parents went there. I just feel more at home here.”

Smith was born and raised a Volunteer fan in the heart of Rocky Top Nation. He went to Knoxville Catholic High School and still roots for the orange when he gets a chance.

Smith was highly recruited out of high school, but managed to slip out of the fingertips of his backyard team. He was named the state’s 2006 Gatorade Player of the Year in his senior season. He was also listed as one the top 250 prospects by Rivals.com and in the top 25 of the Athlete category.

“I don’t know. I just like it better. It was just the total package – football, academics, the University,” Smith said.

It probably didn’t hurt that Knoxville Catholic played in blue and gold uniforms and had the Fighting Irish as its nickname.

“We had a lot of Notre Dame fans at my high school, but that really didn’t have anything to do with it,” Smith said.

Despite the fact that he didn’t follow in their footsteps, Smith said that his family was still very happy with his decision to come to South Bend.

“They come up to all the games and everything. It’s kind of cool because they can watch games somewhere else for a change,” he said.

Smith, who is still listed as a safety on the Irish roster, has given his family something to cheer about as he gets more involved with the Notre Dame defense in each game.

He spent his freshman season on the sidelines buried behind Tom Zbikowski (now with the Baltimore Ravens) and seniors David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy.

This spring the coaching staff approached Smith and said they wanted him to give outside linebacker a try. They thought his speed and football knowledge was being wasted on the sidelines and could add a new dimension to their linebacker corps.

“I was a little bit hesitant at first because I didn’t really know what to expect,” Smith said. “I thought it was going to be a whole new process and I was just starting to feel comfortable at safety.”

The transition didn’t take long. By the time the first depth chart was released this season Smith was the No. 1 Sam (or strong side) linebacker.

“At first it was a little bit awkward, but it’s not too bad. A lot of the assignments are the same you just line up in a different spot,” Smith said.

One adjustment that Smith did have to make was getting used to a slightly more physical style of play. He said the new job called for a different mentality than he was used to.

“You just have to line up and be ready to play,” Smith said.

At 6-foot-2, 206 pounds Smith is slightly undersized as a linebacker. What he lacks in size, he can normally make up for once he gets himself going.

“I think if I get running I can usually match people size when I get some speed. It’s been a lot of fun,” he said.

Smith’s speed works well in the blitz-happy Notre Dame defense. Smith has been able to effectively get around offensive lineman and put pressure on the ball especially in the past few weeks.

“He’s played well and he’s really stepped up,” defensive coordinator Corwin Brown said. “He gives us a lot of flexibility and lets us do some different things.”

Smith is currently sixth on the Irish defense with 12 tackles including two behind the line of scrimmage through four games. Last week against the Boilermakers he had two big stops and also broke up a pass. Smith said he feels himself becoming better and better each time he touches the field.

“Each week you get more comfortable playing as you kind of see the things that teams will do against you, kind of like a theme, so it makes it easier to adjust,” he said.

As it gets easier and easier for Smith, it probably gets hard each week for Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and his fans to watch what snuck away.