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November 17, 2011

Smith gets the message

Harrison Smith appreciated the critique and its delivery.

In the wake of Notre Dame's opening week loss to South Florida, assistant coach Chuck Martin didn't jump on his potentially star safety as much as he prodded him. After breaking down tape, Martin told the fifth-year senior he'd played soft against the Bulls. And if Martin's word wasn't good enough, he invited cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks into the conversation.

"What do I know? I was a Division-III free safety. But I thought you were soft," Martin said. "But I'm asking a guy who played six years in the NFL and has seen them all. There's a guy that knows."

Cooks agreed on Martin's soft call.

That left Smith no space for argument, only room for improvement.

"They're both brutally honest with me, which is great," Smith said. "If I ever have a bad game or something I could have done better, they'll get on me and make sure I get it corrected. At the same time, they kind of do it in a way that they almost kind of take little shots at me or something,, but it's all just to make me a better player.

"They like to call me soft if I'm not playing physical enough. So that's something I don't take lightly when someone calls me soft."

Consider that exchange emblematic of Smith's relationship with Martin, his fourth position coach in fives seasons. For the first time in his college career Smith's heard the same message for more than a season, one of the biggest reasons why he's matured from a player without a true position to one who's never out of position.

Smith is on pace to finish among the top five tacklers in the history of the Irish secondary. He was a human adhesive last month when the coaching staff and veteran players frayed. And Smith appears to understand Bob Diaco's defense better than anybody around Notre Dame under the age of 25.

"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."

As much as Martin deserves some credit for Smith's gains, he's unwilling to take any.

After five spring practices last year, Martin knew he had a high NFL draft pick on his hands. He just needed to teach Smith how to tackle. The safety-turned-linebacker-turned-safety too often ducked his head when tackling, letting receivers and backs slip free.

"This is how a third grader tackles and he has better technique than you, so let's improve on it," Martin said. "If you put on tape and if he made one out of five tackles, that was a miracle. But he wasn't getting out-athleted.

"He fixed it himself in a hurry."

Perhaps as important as Martin's tough love was Smith's willingness to embrace it. The fifth-year senior bought into Kelly's coaching style from the start. That meant staying in tune with the frequency of Martin's barbs.

"He's a coach that will get after you on the field like nobody I've ever had before," Smith said. "He can see everything that happens in the play, the right side, the left side, the corners and the safety. So he's always on you to get better on every snap."

Smith hasn't been perfect this season, picking up personal fouls against South Florida, playing a part in the collapse at Michigan and working a step slow against Air Force. Yet critiquing Smith now requires a microscope instead of just plain view.

The senior has effectively back stopped Notre Dame's defense all season, not letting passes go deep. The Irish allowed five completions of more than 25 yards against Michigan but zero to the rest of the schedule.

Notre Dame allowed 16 passes of more than 25 yards last season, an improvement from the 20 allowed in Charlie Weis' final season.

"I can give you a lot of kids that I think I can take a lot of credit for turning their careers around," Martin said. "This was a pretty easy fix. If they're all like Harrison, we all could coach."


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