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April 9, 2011

Harrison Smith's coming of age

The image still remains crystal clear.

The shy, soft-spoken, longhaired safety quietly answering questions. Barely looking in the camera, voice hardly audible, peeking through strands of hair covering his eyes and face.

That was Harrison Smith back in the fall of 2007 when the freshman from Tennessee wasn't exactly comfortable answering questions about himself or the team.

Now, he serves as the lead voice for the 2011 squad.

"I was pretty shy back then," smiled Smith Friday, hair cropped short, looking directly into the camera lens. "I'm not a very vocal individual as it is, but back then, I was pretty quiet. Being around this program and all the support staff that we have, I've come a long way."

A long way on the field as well as off. After preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman, Smith made the transition from safety to outside linebacker, where he acquitted himself quite well in 2008. Undersized for the spot, Smith finished fourth on the team in tackles and appeared to be on his way to developing into a top-notch college defender.

But when he moved back to safety in 2009, everything that could go wrong with the Irish defense did, and Smith was at the forefront of the foibles. Missed tackles plagued him and his fellow defenders throughout the star-crossed season.

"I'm not going to lie, my confidence definitely has gone up and down," Smith said. "I didn't have a very good 2009.

"When everybody comes in, they're pretty confident. Then you start to practice and depending on how things shake out, you're up and down, up and down. If you can stay on a steady stream, that's the best thing. But that's hard to do, especially as a young male who has to mature and become a man. That's part of this."

For Smith, manhood arrived on the football field in 2010, although he wasn't without his struggles, particularly early in the season when he and the defense still were trying to find their legs.

But when the Irish fell to Tulsa the last weekend of October, the Notre Dame defense held the Golden Hurricane to 13 offensive points. From there, the Irish held Utah and Army to three points each, and then limited USC to 16 points in a four-point regular season-ending victory that sent the Irish to the Sun Bowl.

No defense in the country performed more admirably than Notre Dame's over the final month of the season, and throughout the revival, Smith's voice served as a guide wire for his teammates.

Now, with wide receiver Michael Floyd suspended indefinitely, Smith remains the only named captain this spring.

"It's a role I feel honored to have, but at the same time, there is a lot of leadership on and off the field right now," Smith said. "Outside of being a captain, there are a lot of older guys who have been here that understand how to go about their business and help the younger guys. As far as being that spokesperson, I just try to back up the team on anything. There's really not much to that."

Smith says Floyd remains a leader within the broader scope of the program.

"Michael is still part of our family, and I still consider him a captain on the team," Smith said. "But on the field, there is a lot of other leadership on the team. I've tried to pick it up a little bit and try to be more vocal than I normally am. Just lead by example. But there are other guys on offense and defense leading the team."

Smith is intent on making sure the 2011 Irish defense grabs the baton in full stride from the 2010 unit.

"I think you can pick up where we left off, but at the same time, that's a lot harder than it sounds," Smith said. "We just have to have the mentality that we're not just going to step back on the field and line up and play (well) because we ended the year (well).

"There are plenty of teams that are good and then they have a terrible next year. We want to have the mindset that we definitely haven't arrived yet."

Smith's maturity comes through in his words, sometimes sounding like one of the assistant coaches. For example, Smith fully comprehends the notion that a defense is only as good as its last play.

"We didn't give up a lot of home runs last year - balls over our heads - when we were winning games," Smith said. "That's the No. 1 thing you have to eliminate in my mind.

"As a defensive player, particularly a defensive back, you have to realize that every play is a new play. They can score an 80-yard touchdown even if you've held them for no yards on 50 plays. So you've got to have a short memory and a strong will."

The soft-spoken country boy from Knoxville, Tenn., now knows what it means to be a leader among leaders.

"The kid from Tennessee, hiding behind his hair…I definitely have made as much progress off the field as on the field," Smith smiled.

So will Smith - the established leader whose hairstyle has run the gamut over the last five years -- let his hair down in his final go-round with the Irish?

"I'll probably just keep it how it is," Smith smiled. "Nothing crazy."





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