A year ago, Notre Dame’s defensive line was one of the deepest units on the team. But after star defensive linemen Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa graduated and junior Aidan Keanaaina suffered an ACL injury in the spring, it became clear the Irish needed reinforcements.
When Notre Dame brought in Chris Smith, a graduate transfer from Harvard, he wasn’t expected to compete for a starting job. That was before Jacob Lacey unexpectedly announced he would be entering the transfer portal.
Now, Smith must step up and take on a bigger role than he may have been expecting.
“The guys here have been great in helping me adjust,” Smith said after practice on Tuesday. “It’s felt like family since I’ve gotten here.”
Against BYU last week, with senior Howard Cross III also absent due to a high ankle sprain, Smith saw a season-high 28 snaps. That was the second most among Irish defensive linemen, according to Blue and Gold Illustrated. Smith also saw 28 snaps in the season opener against Ohio State but his usage rate declined significantly since then.
“I know every guy wants to play every single snap, but that obviously can’t happen, so just doing what we can,” Smith said.
Smith steps up in larger role
Alongside sophomore Gabriel Rubio, Smith — who is listed at 6’1 and 310 pounds — will be expected to step up and fill the gap left by Lacey. Lacey’s best game of the season had come recently against Cal, where he racked up five tackles, including two sacks. The recent performance made Lacey’s abrupt departure surprising to many.
“Anytime that happens, either departure or injury, you always feel badly for the young person that’s experiencing that,” defensive coordinator Al Golden said after practice this week. “But the other guys have an opportunity to step up. Certainly Gabe (Rubio) and Chris did that, and there’ll be others here as the season moves on.”
Smith was named to the 2021 First Team All-Ivy League team after posting 40 tackles on the year for the Crimson. The Ivy League does not allow graduate students to play, and Smith had a year of eligibility left because the Ivies canceled all sports for the 2020-21 academic year.
He sought a transfer and was initially planning to enroll at Minnesota. But Smith flipped his commitment to Notre Dame in April after a visit to South Bend. It has turned out to be a wise decision for both Smith and the Irish. Through five games for the Irish, Smith has seven total tackles, including three solo stops, but his role is expected to increase in the absence of Lacy and with Cross continuing to battle an ankle injury. Cross is expected to play this weekend, but he may be in a limited role.
Smith isn’t the only Harvard graduate transfer to play an important role for Notre Dame this year. He is joined by punter Jon Sot, his teammate for three seasons in Cambridge. Sot has been a revelation for Notre Dame this year, averaging nearly 43 net yards per punt.
Defensive line seeks continued improvement
As a unit, Notre Dame’s defensive line has played well this year. The Irish have been stout against the run–except for the loss against Marshall. They have held dual-threat quarterbacks CJ Stroud, Drake Maye and Jaren Hall largely in check. At times, though, they have struggled to get pressure late in games.
“I feel like we’ve been pretty successful so far,” Smith said. “Obviously we’ve still got a lot we can work on, still got a lot we can get better on. We’re not content with where we are. We think we can definitely kick it up another gear.”
Smith said the execution of the defensive line has improved since the start of the year. “In the beginning, you get a lot thrown at you, and then now, towards… the middle of the season, getting more adjusted to the roles we’ve been playing.”
Notre Dame’s defensive line will be critical to the team’s performance in the second half of the season. Smith will likely play a key part of the unit moving forward.
“You try to get better each day, I think is our goal,” Smith said. “We’re still not done, and being our best product.”
Contact Liam Coolican at firstname.lastname@example.org.