From a man without a position to a first round draft pick. The collegiate portion of Harrison Smith’s collegiate career closed on Thursday night when the Minnesota Vikings selected Notre Dame’s standout safety with the 29th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft ending a transformation that started two seasons ago when the Tennessee native finally settled in as a defensive back for the Irish.
For the first two seasons of his college career, the words “much maligned” were used to describe Smith much more so than say “future first round pick”. In fact, if you had suggested to most people that Smith would turn his career around and move on to the NFL as a first rounder you would have been met with more than a little scepticism.
A lot has changed for Harrison Smith in that time though. For one, when Brian Kelly took over for Charlie Weis, he immediately moved Smith to safety permanently and stated if that Smith couldn’t play safety for the Irish then he couldn’t play at all.
This was in stark contrast to Smith’s role under Weis and then defensive coordinators Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta who shuffled Smith back and forth between outside linebacker and safety during his first two seasons of playing time in South Bend.
At the time, Smith was hardly equipped to hold up against the run as an outside linebacker and as a result he was man-handled against power running teams and as a result he was known more for bonehead plays and penalties than game changing performances by the end of the 2009 season.
By the end of the 2010 season, however, the perception of Smith as a liability was long gone replaced by the label of clutch performer and game changer. Against USC in the 2010 season finale, Smith’s interception at the goal line sealed an Irish victory that snapped a 9 game winning streak for USC over Notre Dame and propelled the Irish to a bowl game – something that had looked very bleak a few weeks earlier.
Once Smith and the Irish got to that bowl game – the 2010 Sun Bowl against Miami – he further cemented his reputation as a game changer with a three interception performance that took all the wind out of the Hurricane’s sails early on and set up the Irish for an esy victory.
The 2011 season was not as kind to Smith in terms of creating turnovers, but this past season Smith saw his game elevate in other areas – namely his ability to be the leader of the Irish defense. On a squad that included multiple year starters like Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Manti Te’o, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton, it was Smith who served as the defensive captain throughout the course of the season.
Smith’s transformation on the field and his development off is what allowed him to work his way into the first round of last week’s draft. HE always had the skill and talent. That much was never in doubt. His ability to work through his struggles on the field early in his career, however, is what allowed him to become the leader and player he is today.
And that player is one who was just selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Now that he is in the NFL though, the real work is only just beginning for the once star crossed athlete who carried the dreaded “hybrid” label. In Monnesota he finds himself in a situation where he not only has an excellent chance to start from day one, but one in which he also has familiar faces around him. Former Notre Dame teamsmates John Sullivan, John Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph are all current members of the Vikings roster giving Smith a lot of friends to turn to as he makes the transition to the NFL.
In terms of his playing opportunities, the starting strong safety position is available for the taking if Smith does his part in OTA’s and training camp. The Vikings traded back into the 1st round to nab Smith with that 29th pick so their expectations for him will obviously be high coming into his rookie campaign.
Smith has the skill to continue to excel on the field and his experience covering elite tight ends both on Saturdays and every day in practice with the likes of Carlson, Rudolh, and current Notre Dame star tight end Tyler Eifert will serve him well as he looks to make his mark on Sundays.
Making the transition on and off the field shouldn’t be a problem for Smith either after he endured multiple defensive schemes and two coaching regimes during his collegiate career and after the transformation we all witnessed from Smith over the past four years, it should come no surprise to anyone to see him continue his upward trend now that he is wearing purple and white instead of blue and gold.