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



ND Football: Mr. Versatility

Bill Brink | Friday, September 4, 2009

Not to glorify retribution, but sometimes it can be healthy for a defense.

Ask Brian Smith. After a teammate was illegally blocked during a game – he wouldn’t say which one – Smith called the defense together.

“As a defense we can’t let this happen,” he told his teammates. “Next time you get a shot at this guy, take it.”

Guess who got the first shot?

“I cleaned the guy’s clock,” Smith said. “I was trying to send a message to the team. If someone hits you in the mouth, we’re brothers. We got to take care of each other.”

That sentiment holds true this season, when Smith, a junior, plays an interchangeable role in Notre Dame’s linebacking corps. Smith will play two positions, the weakside and middle linebacker. He’s comfortable playing either, but given the choice, he’d take the Will.

“Because it allows me to run,” he said. “I’m not taking on as many blocks. I can come downhill and hit you in the mouth instead of maybe sideways or forwards sometimes.”

What a tough guy, with all his talk about hittin’ people in the mouth and taking numbers of opposing players he needs to light up later. But there’s a calmer side.

“One thing you’ll find on my iPod I don’t have a lot of hard fast songs,” he said. “I like to listen to slow John Legend type of music.

“If there was anything in the world I could do instead of play football it would be to sing and play the piano like John Legend.”

Can he sing?

“Not at all,” he said. “I always sing in the locker room, and they always tell me to shut up.”

He used to learn to play the piano by ear, however, along with the tuba, trumpet, saxophone, drums and bass guitar. Eventually, he realized he wanted to focus on football, and he got tired of music after a while.

Actually, Smith, from Overland Park, Kan., knew since second grade he had a future in football.

“If you’re good in first grade in any form or fashion, you’re going to be the best player out there,” he said. “I was one of the better ones out there and when you’re he best you just want to keep doing it.”

Smith started as a fullback and thought he’d be going to college in the backfield. But during his junior year at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, the team instituted a spread offense, rendering the fullback less important. There was a shortage of linebackers, so Smith told the coaches he could play there.

Once he got to Notre Dame, he played in 11 games his freshman season and started the last three. He started nine games his sophomore year, missing two because of an injury. He had 54 tackles and forced a fumble against Michigan, which he returned 35 yards for a touchdown.

But back to this season, where the Irish linebackers will rotate positions depending on the formation. Senior Toryan Smith will start at middle linebacker with Brian at the Will, but when freshman Manti Te’o enters the game, Brian will slide over to the Mike.

“He can play any linebacker position, so that allows me to move him around in different packages and do different things with him,” assistant head coach and linebackers coach Jon Tenuta said.

The two positions require Smith to change his assignments on the go, but he said he’s getting better at it.

“So in my mind, at Will, [it’s] ‘Okay what do I got, here, here, here, here,'” he said, running down his mental checklist. “But it all changes when I’m at Mike. I do an okay job of shifting gears. I need to get better at doing that come game time.”

At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Smith has the athleticism to play either spot. He’s also got the mental capacity for either place, Tenuta said.

“Brian Smith’s a tremendous talent, period. He’s got great athleticism,” Tenuta said. “He’s smart, every day he learns more and more. He knows his role.”

His role, whatever it may be, will be an important one Saturday, when the Irish face Nevada’s pistol offense. The pistol, which positions the quarterback about three yards behind the center with a running back directly behind him, is dangerous regardless, but put it in the hands of Wolfpack quarterback Colin Kaepernick and it’s deadly.

Smith remembers the first time he saw Kaepernick play. “They were playing Boise State, and it was 72-64, final score, quadruple overtime,” he said, a slight exaggeration of the actual 69-67 final. “And the first thing that came to mind when I saw him, I think he was just a freshman, was, ‘He’s a little version of Vince Young.'”

That mini-Vince rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and scored 17 touchdowns on the ground.

“He has a lot of ability,” Smith said. “We have to work on containing him and play sound football come Saturday.”

Similar to Navy and Michigan, the Pistol offense allows the quarterback, especially a mobile one like Kaepernick, to scramble and run the option. To prevent this, the players are assigned one of three offensive players to shadow: the quarterback, the “dive man” – the runner who could take a handoff straight up the middle – or the “pitch man,” who swings outside with the quarterback waiting for the ball.

“It’s fun unless sometime you face a team that doesn’t pitch it all the time, and you’re stuck on the pitch man and you’re just out there and you have to go to the pitch man every time, but the time you so happen to not go to the pitch he pitches it,” Smith said.

The defense has at least some inclination, however, of where the ball is headed. The players, Smith said, are taught to read formations to decipher what the offense is most likely to run.

“Coach Tenuta does a good job of drilling us, final formation dictates what the offense is going to do,” he said.

Quite a convergence of events for Smith on Saturday. Two positions to play, the addition of a very talented but still inexperienced linebacker in Te’o, the first game of the season, against a quarterback with wheels in an unorthodox offensive set.

“It’s going to show how versatile I am and help me be able to attack from different spots on the field, so I’m ready for it,” he said.

To illustrate Saturday’s importance, he quoted coach Charlie Weis, who took the mantra from Bill Parcells.

“This is step one of the marathon,” he said. “You want to get off the blocks well in a marathon, start fast and continue it on week by week.”