Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

Harrison Smith's heroics good sign for Notre Dame

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One of my favorite Brian Kelly quirks is his refusal to gush about a player he isn't happy with. For a guy who grew up in politics and is well-versed in the art of spin, he really struggles to b.s. anybody when it comes to a player not playing to his standards.

He called Michael Floyd ''overhyped'' and ''average'' on media day in August. And when talking about Steven Filer's promotion to first-team outside linebacker in preseason camp, Kelly's tone and his words (''We're not going to play for a couple of weeks. Now the [challenge] is, can he hold onto it?'') told you he didn't think it would last. And it didn't.

But the classic example was after the 23-17 victory over Pittsburgh, in which Harrison Smith had an interception -- when Pitt receiver Kyle Shanahan fell while making a cut -- and Kelly was asked in his post-game press conference ''to comment on [Smith's] game.''

''Well, you know, you can't leave [Jon] Baldwin by himself all the time,'' Kelly said. ''Interesting enough, the touchdown they caught, we were in two deep, we were in Cover-2. The ball got outside the defense. We lost contain.

 ''The safety came up. And he gets behind us. But other than that, we did a pretty good job against Baldwin other than that one long play. And that means you've got to keep Harrison back in two deep, but you also gotta be able to take your shots and drop them down.

''I thought we had a great game plan, a good balance. Coach Diaco called a very good game of balancing when to drop Harrison for run support and then when to keep him back to double Baldwin.''

Listening to his response, It was hard to tell if the question was about Harrison Smith or Bob Diaco. Either way, it was not exactly a ringing endorsement of a starting safety. It seemed like the kind of non-answer that borders on an indictment.

But after Notre Dame's 33-17 victory over Miami (Fla.) on Friday at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, when Smith sparked a first-half rout with three interceptions in the second quarter, Kelly didn't have to hold back when asked about Harrison Smith.

''He's on a roll right now,'' Kelly said. ''That makes four in the last two games. It was just a matter of time. Harrison is a complete football player. You saw the kind of hits he'll bring when he comes down. But he also can play off the hash. A lot of people question his ability to play off the hash and I think he answered all those critics quite well.''

My guess is that Kelly is among those who have a finer appreciation for Smith now than he did before. Though Sun Bowl MVP Michael Floyd was the hero Friday, Smith's performance might have been a better harbinger of good things to come at Notre Dame under Kelly.
A returning starter, Smith was OK-at-best in the early stages of the season when Notre Dame was still figuring out the nuances of Bob Diaco's defense. His position looked like a prime candidate for an upgrade once Kelly had a chance to recruit his own players into the program.
But in the last half of the 2010 season, Smith not only made fewer mistakes, but more big plays. His  three interceptions against Miami  gave him five in the last four games.

And while that might not be an indication of how great a player Harrison Smith is, it's an indication that when the Diaco/Kelly defense is better established, players like Harrison Smith become playmakers.

When Miami receiver Leonard Hankerson was aksed about Smith's performance, he said, ''I guess he was at the right place at the right time,'' That might be a polite way of saying Smith was lucky. But when a safety is at the right place at the right time three times in one quarter, there's more to it than luck.

''When we get certain looks, the coaches give me the freedom to check to something that matches up well with that,'' Smith said. ''I think two of the interceptions were plays where we made those checks. It just gives us a good matchup against that [offense].

''And when we have guys like Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton all re-routing their receivers and getting them off their timing, it just makes it real easy for a safety to sit back there and play center field.''

Smith was a humble hero Friday, which is especially impressive considering he's been kind of a whipping boy for Notre Dame critics the past two seasons. But though his record-tying performance was great for him, it was an even better sign for Notre Dame's defense, which is all about putting the right guy in the right place at the right time. Michael Floyd scoring two touchdowns in Kelly's offense is one thing. But it's Harrison Smith becoming a playmaker in Kelly's defense that bodes well for Notre Dame. Because there are a lot more Harrison Smiths around than there are Michael Floyds.

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This page contains a single entry by Mark Potash published on January 1, 2011 9:52 PM.

Ruffer 50-yarder extends streak to 22; Irish lead 27-3 was the previous entry in this blog.

Notre Dame women fall just short against No. 2 UConn is the next entry in this blog.

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