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Harrison Smith honored as lone captain

Eric Prister | Thursday, November 17, 2011

In a career filled with ups and downs, winning seasons and losing seasons, and position changes, fifth-year safety and captain Harrison Smith has always remained consistent.

On the field, he has started every game over the past three seasons and leads all active Irish players in tackles, pass break-ups and interceptions. Off the field, Smith said he leads, not vocally, but as a rock for his teammates.

“I’d say credibility with my teammates [is my greatest strength as a captain],” he said. “They all know the kind of guy I am. I’m not a fake guy, I’m not a ‘rah rah’ guy. If you’re looking for a great speech, I might not be the guy. But they all know they can count on me and that I’ll do anything for them.”

Even Irish coach Brian Kelly, when he told Smith he would be the lone captain for the Irish throughout the season, reminded the fifth-year safety to remain consistent.

“He just told me not to be somebody I’m not,” Smith said. “He said just to keep doing what I’ve been doing to this point — that’s why he wanted me as captain. So he said just be yourself and keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

Smith said that in being a captain, he not only has a responsibility to remain steady for his teammates, but for all of Notre Dame’s fan base.

“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “So many people love this school and follow this school, so there is a lot you have to live up to. It’s also good though because it makes you want to elevate your game all the time and always be that guy that people can look to.”

Smith redshirted his freshman season, but has played in every game since. The Gatorade player of the year in Tennessee as a senior in high school, he said the camaraderie he saw on Notre Dame’s team was what drew him to the school.

“The recruiting process — I hated it, so I didn’t take all my visits,” he said. “I visited Tennessee and here, and at the end of the day, I just really liked how the team interacted with each other. Obviously everything else is great — the tradition, everything Notre Dame has to offer academically. But just the way the guys acted with each other, how close everyone was, was really what sold me on the place.”

Smith played in every game of his sophomore season at safety, starting all but four contests and finishing fourth on the team in tackles. He continued to play safety through the first half of his junior season before switching to outside linebacker after six games. Smith said the transition was difficult, but made him a better player in the end.

“I would say [changing positions] could be good or bad,” he said. “If you’re not mature enough and don’t know enough about the game and are not ready to handle a bunch of different roles, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to settle into a role. But I’m glad I did it now because I learned so much from it.

“Now I know what it’s like to be a linebacker, and so what they’re thinking when I’m playing behind them. But I’ve always seen myself as a safety, even when I was down there, I was more of an undersized linebacker, so it’s good to be back playing safety.”

Despite the position switch, Smith had another productive year in 2009. He was third on the team in tackles with 69 and started every game for the Irish.

When Kelly took over as head coach before the 2010 season, he moved Smith back to his natural position at safety. Smith took advantage, finishing second on the team with 93 tackles, and added seven interceptions to his resumé. He picked off his first career pass against Boston College and intercepted three passes in the first half of the Sun Bowl against Miami, which tied a team record. His seven interceptions ranked fourth in the nation in that category.

“Ever since last year [my thought process] is always [to] make a play,” he said. “If there’s ever an opportunity for an interception, that’s what you’ve got to go for. But if you realize that the ball’s coming down and you’re not in position for an interception, you’ve got to go for the breakup.”

Smith is currently second on the team in tackles behind junior linebacker Manti Te’o and leads in pass break-ups with nine. Kelly said Smith is excellent at leading through his actions, both on and off the field.

“[He is a] leader by example, how you prepare, how you take care of yourself, both on and off the field, what it’s like to represent Notre Dame football seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” Kelly said. “I mean he’s the kind of guy that you can model as to what your programs look like because of the way he handles himself all the time. When you’re in the mix of changes going on in your program, he has to be a great communicator to the other players as well. He sometimes has to carry the water, so to speak, in terms of the messages. And he’ll always be welcome here because of what he’s meant to us, I mean our entire program here, too.”

Smith credits some of his development to his position coach Chuck Martin. He said Martin does a good job balancing a strict on-field relationship with a genial relationship outside the stadium.

“There’s been so many people who have had an effect on my time here that it would be hard to name everybody,” he said. “Now, Coach Martin has made an impact on my game and just being around him, picking up things off of him — he’s been very influential.

“He really does a good job separating when he’s mad at you on the field and then when you’re off the field, and he does that with all of the players. He’s always looking out for everyone and making sure they’re alright, but once you’re on the field, he’s going to get after you.”

When asked about his next step, Smith said his goal is the same as any other play who plays college football — the NFL. He is currently ranked sixth among graduating safeties on Scout.com for draft potential.

“[The NFL] is everybody’s dream, who plays college football, to go on and do that,” he said. “So, if that’s an opportunity then that’s what I want to do.”

Smith said despite all the ups and downs of his career, his experience at Notre Dame has been one of the best of his life.

“I wouldn’t want to say [it was] a wild ride, but [my time at Notre Dame] has been kind of like a roller coaster, on and off the field. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s been great — just the relationships you make with not only teammates and coaches, but with students. The guys in the dorm, my roommates — I had the same roommate every year, John McGeehan. Relationships like that are things that I’ll never forget.

“If anything has gotten stronger than it was when I was recruited here, [it is the] things that people don’t see when you watch a game, just our day-to-day lives, stuff like that. How many of us always hanging out, talking about anything, it’s just really cool to be a part of.”