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Harvard transfer Smith prepares for bigger role

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 lcoolica@nd.edu.

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Thomas: Where Ben Morrison ranks among recent Irish recruiting steals

Within just weeks, three-star cornerback recruit Benjamin Morrison claimed a starting job within the vaunted Notre Dame defense. Morrison came to South Bend as the second-highest cornerback recruit in the class, with many figuring four-star Jaden Mickey to challenge for early playing time. Mickey has played some very important snaps for the Irish, but it is the previously little-known Morrison that has carved out a regular role. Where does Morrison rank amidst recent Irish recruiting steals? The Irish have molded several lower-rated recruits into dominant starters, but did any get off to as fast a start as the Phoenix, Arizona, native? 

Where does Morrison fall

Morrison came to Notre Dame ranked as the 311th-best recruit per 247 and the 35th-best cornerback. He received a .9000 grade on the dot from 247. Morrison wasn’t an early enrollee, so the headlines centered around Mickey and his brash confidence at the spring game. But after a strong camp and preseason, Morrison forced his way into the cornerback rotation. He played 29 snaps in the opener at Ohio State. He usurped the starting role a few short weeks after.

A three-star recruit that was seemingly a depth addition to a strong class, Morrison looks like one of the best recruiting steals for the Irish in recent memory. To compare him to recent and similar recruiting steals, I looked at the litany of Irish three-star recruits that became big-time contributors for the blue and gold. In order to create this list, a combination of how quickly they became a starter and their overall impact on the team over their career was considered. 

Recent Recruiting Steals

7. Logan Diggs

Diggs filled a big hole late in the 2021 recruiting cycle for Notre Dame. The Irish went hard after eventual Clemson commit Will Shipley, and they needed to pivot late. They grabbed Diggs, ranked as the 504th-best player and 35th-best running back. While Diggs never was RB1 as a freshman, Diggs appeared in eight games, filling some critical roles especially when eventual fifth-round draft pick Kyren Williams was drafted. 

6. Jarrett Patterson

Patterson wasn’t exactly a highly underrated recruit, but he did enter Notre Dame ranked as the 25th-best offensive tackle in the country and the 369th-best player. However, Patterson has established himself as a linchpin of the Irish offensive line in recent years. As a sophomore, he started all 13 games of the 2019 season at center. He’s moved around between tackle and center over his career, but outside of missing the end of the 2020 season due to injury, Patterson has been a full-time starter since cracking the lineup. 

5. Clarence Lewis 

In a bit of irony, Lewis, who just largely lost his job to Morrison, comes in at No. 5. Given recent events and Lewis’s struggles, it’s easy to forget he came in as a freshman and took over a starting role on a College Football Playoff-bound team. Lewis played in nine games as a freshman, taking over as a starter in November. He entered as the 727th-ranked prospect and 58th-ranked cornerback. He stays lower on the list given he has since been surpassed on the depth chart. 

4. Benjamin Morrison

For now, Morrison slots in at No. 4. He’s got a lot to prove, but after becoming a starter by Week 3 of his true freshman year, and given the fact that he wasn’t an early enrollee, his rapid ascent merits a rise up this list. 

3. Kyren Williams

One of the best skill position players out of Notre Dame in the past few years, Kyren Williams didn’t come to South Bend with otherworldly amounts of hype. His .8918 recruit grade was modest, and he clocked it at No. 367 on the 247 recruit rankings. Even within the running backs, he was only ranked No. 24 on the list. Of course, Williams became a starter as a sophomore and pushed the Irish to a playoff berth in 2020. His 140-yard, three-touchdown effort against No. 1 Clemson, including a 65-yard touchdown run on his first rush of the game, remains a legendary performance. He finished his career with back-to-back 1000-yard seasons before departing for the NFL. 

2. Joe Alt 

Alt was almost forced into a starting role with underperformance and injury issues along the Irish offensive line. But after entering at left tackle against Cincinnati, Alt took over the starting job against Virginia Tech. He stabilized Notre Dame’s most questionable position and emerged as the clear starting left tackle for at least the next three years. Alt has almost seamlessly transitioned into this season as a starter, performing as the Irish’s best offensive lineman for most of the season. It’s easy to forget he entered with a .8862 prospect grade, rated as the 408th-best recruit in the country. 

1. Kurt Hinish

Kurt Hinish has been exceeding expectations long before he surprisingly made the Houston Texans roster this past preseason. Before that, Hinish entered as the 520th-ranked recruit and 43rd-ranked defensive tackle in the 2017 class. He immediately became a contributor as a freshman, appearing in 12 games in his first year. He had his coming out party in the USC rivalry clash, totaling a then-career-high three tackles against the Trojans. Ultimately, his collegiate career-high would amount to 10 in the 2022 matchup against Navy. Hinish played in 63 games over five years for the Irish, totaling 28 tackles and 2 sacks. The nose guard jumped from little-known three-star recruit to starting lineup staple for half a decade, earning the No. 1 spot on this list.

Contact Aidan Thomas at athoma28@nd.edu.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.