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Scott Smith: Fifth-year linebacker becomes mentor on field

Bill Brink | Friday, November 20, 2009

Not many players can say the first person they tackled in their college career was Steve Breaston.

Scott Smith has that distinction. In his first game as a freshman, he tracked down the former Michigan wideout and kick returner, who now plays for the Arizona Cardinals and had more than 1,000 yards receiving last season, on a reverse.

“One of those situations everybody has when it seems like things are moving so fast, you really don’t have a chance to kind of get your bearings I guess,” Smith said. “That’s definitely something that’ll probably be one of the ‘tell my grandkids’ stories. ‘This was grandpa’s first play, first tackle,’ probably be a way to build myself up in the future.”

He doesn’t have to build himself up now, though. The fifth-year senior acts as a coach on the field, the man who distills defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s schemes for the younger players and someone who portrays consistency and character.

“He’s just a regular guy. Goes to class, goes to work,” fellow senior linebacker Toryan Smith said. “Does everything he’s supposed to do. He’s a great student. He’s a really good guy.”

Smith’s skills at linebacker developed late. Due to weight restrictions in middle school, Smith played on the offensive and defensive lines. At Highland Park High School in Highland Park, Ill., he played defensive end and tight end, but at the beginning of his sophomore year, coach Kurt Weinburg told him he’d be playing middle linebacker.

“I ended up just sticking there for the next three years and playing a bunch of different positions on offense,” he said. “I guess I was able to make a pretty good impression on some people.”

Smith said he liked getting off the line of scrimmage and working in space rather than pounding around in the trenches.

“I think [the coaches] tried to make it as easy for me as possible. Just find the ball and go tackle someone,” he said. “As I got more comfortable and as I got more used to playing the position my responsibilities kind of increased.”

Aside from the combination of academics and big-time football that Notre Dame offered, Smith said the size of the school attracted him and he liked the opportunity to be more than a number.

“Smaller classes, [having] an opportunity to interact with professors and build relationships,” Smith said. “Those relationships too are something that will help me in the future looking for jobs and getting references and things like that.”

As a freshman, Smith played behind linebacker Corey Mays, who graduated in 2006 and now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. In a way, Mays was to Smith as Smith now is to the younger linebackers.

“He seemed like that old guy who knew everything and was the best guy to go to for advice and always had a good answer,” Smith said. “I really appreciate him taking me under his wing. I’m sure I got a little annoying with all the questions. I’m sure I look like that old guy to a lot of the freshman now, so I’m trying to return the favor, I guess, with them.”

Now Smith answers questions for younger linebackers like Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox.

“Its kind of weird how it’s come full circle,” he said. “One day you’re this wide-eyed freshman, the next you’re kind of like this wise old veteran. It’s pretty neat.”

Smith didn’t play his sophomore year, but appeared in every game in his junior and senior years. He made 18 tackles, seven solo, during his junior season.

Smith said the biggest improvement in his game is his ability to shed blocks. In high school, he said, he could blow by the blockers, but now he needs to use his hands. This is especially true since he’s moved from middle linebacker to outside linebacker at Notre Dame, where he faces the tight end on a regular basis.

“Obviously they’re a threat as a receiver playing man coverage,” he said. “It’s a little bit different just because of the athletic difference, but some of these linemen who are 315 pounds, you don’t expect them to move what they do, but they can get you too.”

For the past two seasons, Smith has played under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. He’s acted as an intermediary between Tenuta and the players.

“He’s like JT in that he’ll get JT’s message across very well,” associate head coach Corwin Brown said of Smith. “He cuts through the fat.”

Toryan Smith agreed.

“He’s really taken on the player-coach role. He’s the coach when the coach is not there,” Toryan said. “I feel like he really accepted the leadership role on the team. He wasn’t asked to do it.”

Smith said playing under Tenuta not only gives him an opportunity not many other players get but a chance to learn lessons for a potential future in coaching.

“To have the opportunity to have one of the best defensive coordinators in the country as your position coach is not something a lot of guys can say,” he said. “The way that he talks to us, and the way that he helps us, and the way he critiques our play is all geared toward us becoming better football players and us being better prepared to help the team win. It’s kind of nice to get that view of being almost in his head, because everything he sees gets transferred right to us.

“In the future possibly wanting to coach, having that perspective on how to approach different types of opponents.”

Being a fifth-year senior gives Smith more time to relax, something that previously eluded him. He said he enjoys sleeping and spending time with roommates Paul Duncan and Bartley Webb. He’s also got his TV schedule dialed up every week — on this particular Wednesday, Law and Order: SVU awaited him.

“Probably the greatest show ever made on TV,” he said.

Smith is currently taking graduate classes, but as an undergrad he finished with a 3.65 grade point average. Time management helped him, he said — as did playing to his strengths.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t do all the reading for class,” he said. “You kind of pick and choose your spots where you think you can be successful. It’s a factor of knowing my strengths and weaknesses and applying effort where it was needed.”

In the same way a defense has moving parts, Smith wants to be part of a business with a lot of moving parts and change. He said he’d like to work in business problem solving and possibly re-enter the sports world.

“I wouldn’t mind doing something in sports, obviously, just because that’s where the majority of my life has been spent,” he said.

Whether it’s football, course work, a future job or dealing with his family, Smith said he strives for consistency and character.

“As a person the most important thing for me is to be consistent, to be approachable and be that guy that you know has a real good character,” he said. “You hear a lot of people say character is what you do when no one else is watching. That’s what I try to be, the same person all the time. Just know the people in my life, like my friends in family, they know what they’re going to get. I’m just going to be me.”