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Harrison Smith: Amid years of change, safety adapts in form

Blair Chemidlin | Thursday, November 11, 2010

When asked how he feels about this weekend’s game against Utah being his last football game in Notre Dame Stadium, senior safety Harrison Smith replied quickly, “That question doesn’t apply to me.”

According to Smith and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin, Smith, who red-shirted his freshman year, will most likely be coming back for the 2011 season.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 214-pound Knoxville, Tenn., native has played both safety and linebacker during his college career. It wasn’t until this season that Smith found stability on the field, when Irish coach Brian Kelly declared early on Smith would have only one position on the gridiron.

“He never would be an outside linebacker in our system,” Kelly said during spring practices. “He’s always been a safety. If he can’t play safety, he can’t play. It was pretty easy for that one.”

Just as Smith’s position on the football field has flip-flopped back and forth between safety and linebacker, and finally settled this season, his hairstyle has changed dramatically over the years as well. After keeping his hair short and tidy in high school, Smith decided to grow it out in college.

By fall of his sophomore year, his eyes were hardly visible beneath his bangs. The following year, this problem was remedied when his hair was long enough to part down the middle, no longer impairing his vision. His long hair became a favorite subject among friends and media alike, until Smith decided to cut it during the winter of his junior year.

These days, Smith sports a buzz cut.

“I just got sick of it,” Smith said. “It was too long, took too long to dry.”

Perhaps, however, he just became tired of everyone bringing it up to him as a topic of conversation. Smith specifically cited his “mom and grandmom” as giving him a hard time about his long hair more than anyone else.

Although Smith admitted some disappointing games and seasons during his time at Notre Dame, he hopes to use his last year to turn things around.

“Since I’ve been here, we haven’t really had a strong team. That is something I really want to have. When people see us on their schedule, I want them to say ‘Oh, no, this week is Notre Dame,'” Smith said. “That is something I want to bring Notre Dame back to — that when people think about us, they think about us as being a tough team — guys who aren’t going to stop, guys who are disciplined, and just guys you really don’t want to go up against for four quarters.”

Smith said he feels bittersweet about coming back next year. He is certainly excited, and has high hopes for the fall season, but many of his fellow teammates from the class of 2011 will not be returning.

He reflected on how he has become close with all of his teammates by spending so much time together on and off the field over the years.

Smith particularly said he cherishes memories from the two times he brought back teammates with him to his home in Tennessee during breaks.

Smith had the opportunity to introduce his classmates, including then-quarterback Jimmy Clausen, running back Armando Allen, linebacker Brian Smith and receiver Duval Kamara, to his home as well as friends of his at the University of Tennessee. He has also spent time with Golden Tate, of Hendersonville, in their shared home state.

In addition to trips home with the boys, Smith recalled memories from summers spent at Notre Dame. To escape the heat and summer school, Smith and teammates often enjoyed trips to nearby lakes.

“One summer a bunch of us went to Six Flags in Chicago,” he said. “It was me, Barry [Gallup], Sergio [Brown], Raeshon [McNeil] and Darrin Walls.”

Many of the Notre Dame players consider Smith among their closest friends, even outside of football.

“He’s my best friend,” senior tight end Mike Ragone said of his defensive counterpart. “He loves me.”

Ragone and Smith both look back fondly on memories of Halloween during their sophomore year at Notre Dame in which they dressed up in costumes together — Smith as “Shaggy,” complete with the appropriate hair-do, and Ragone as “Scooby-Doo.”

Close friend and roommate Barry Gallup, a fifth-year senior wide receiver, has much to say about Smith.

“He is the classic story of a kid who’s transformed from a timid freshman to the leader of our defense and a guy who everyone respects and wants to be around,” Gallup said. “For a guy who is so violent on the field, he is the opposite off the field. He likes golf, cars, playing Madden with friends, investing and anything Tennessee-related.

“He’s my best friend so I know a lot about him, and he’s definitely the most loyal and trustworthy person I know.”

Beyond football, Smith looks toward other future opportunities he would like to pursue. A management entrepreneurship major in the Mendoza School of Business, he hopes to someday own his own business.

“I’ve always wanted to own a bar and grill with my brother, Garrett,” he said.

Smith recognized the outstanding academic opportunities Notre Dame offers as one of the many factors that contributed to his decision to leave Tennessee for Indiana. The University of Tennessee, along with other SEC schools competed for Harrison’s enrollment in their football program when he was in high school.

But then he visited Notre Dame.

“I just felt at home. Everything about the school, the way the team acted together, how close they all were with one another; all of this helped me decide,” he said.

Has it lived up to his expectations? Yes — except in one area.

“Obviously we haven’t won as many games as we thought we would,” he said. “But at least for me, there’s always next year.”

Smith’s football career began 13 years ago when he was in third grade. He went on a hiatus the following year in order to play competitive soccer instead. It was during this time that Smith’s passion for football became apparent.

“My mom loves to tell the story,” he says. “During that football season I would wear my helmet and all my pads, even though I wasn’t playing. I used to dress up in all the gear because I missed it. I’d go out in the yard and pretend I was playing in a game, playing against the trees. I would hit the trees and run around them as if they were players. When the next season came around, I had to play.”

He’s played ever since, and plans to continue, in a fifth season at Notre Dame next fall.

These past four years Smith has experienced a variety of changes — changes in field position, hairstyles and coaching staff.

Next year, Smith hopes to witness even more changes, as he is determined to play a strong role in raising the Notre Dame football team to a more formidable status in the 2011 season.