You need to watch only one highlight of Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski to realize how desperate some teams are for a versatile safety — a player who can have the coverage skills to stick with the new breed of tight ends while also having the ability to be physical and stop the run in the box.
Harrison Smith thinks he can be that player.
The former Notre Dame safety is expected to be a late first- or early second-round pick in April's draft. He played some linebacker earlier in his college career and believes he can be the solution teams are looking for at the position.
"Safety's definitely where I've felt the most comfortable because you can see everything so well, " Smith told PFW. "You can see the whole formation and where everyone is on offense and defense. You can come down and play the run and also be involved in the pass game.
"It's an area where you can impact so much, even pre-snap, because you're the one making the calls and adjustments."
Smith first moved to safety in Pee Wee football around the age of 10 in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. He had been playing corner and running back, but wanted to play linebacker like University of Tennessee LB Raynoch Thompson of the hometown Volunteers. "I thought he was the best," Smith said. Instead, Smith's coach told him to watch another Volunteer — Deon Grant.
"I started paying attention to (Grant). He made a lot of interceptions and plays. He was fun to watch," Smith said.
Chuck Martin will be the Fighting Irish's offensive coordinator in 2012, but he was the defensive backs coach the past two seasons, focusing on Smith and the safeties in 2011. Smith had bounced from safety to linebacker and was coming off a rough sophomore season when Martin joined the staff.
"He did not have a great sophomore year. I think that's an understatement," Martin said. "I don't think he was really ever comfortable at either spot, but he played a lot because he was a talented kid."
When Martin first saw Smith on the practice field, though, he knew there was plenty to work with.
"The first day in practice I saw the incredible things he could do on the field. His athleticism, length and toughness," Martin said. "Three practices into my first spring, I told him, 'If you're not a first-, second- or third-round draft choice, I know nothing about football.' His response was, 'did you watch any of my tape from last year, Coach?' I said, 'Yeah, I've watched your tape. I'm telling you that you have every tool and then some to be an incredible safety.' "
As a junior in 2010, Smith made 91 tackles and hauled in seven interceptions. He had 90 tackles and a forced fumble in his senior season in '11.
Playing for Notre Dame, Smith had the pleasure — and challenge — of going up against elite tight ends in practice. First, it was Kyle Rudolph, who just finished his rookie season with the Vikings. Last season, he had to try to man up against Tyler Eifert, who had 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns. Smith doesn't have to look far for experience in covering athletic tight ends, like the ones NFL teams are desperately trying to stop.
"That's something that when I started playing safety, I never thought about it. With all the tight ends that are just freaks, monsters — they're fast and athletic with great hands — there's really a need for safeties that can match up better with those guys than putting a smaller defensive back on him," Smith said.
Martin is confident that Smith has the skill set to run with and cover the Gronkowskis of the NFL.
"He's not as big as those tight ends but he's big for a safety. He's a long-limbed kid," Martin said. Smith measured 6-1 7/8, 213 pounds with a wingspan of more than 76 inches at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"He has long arms, long range and incredible running ability," Martin continued. "He can run with any of them. Some guys are straight-line fast, but Harrison has body control. He's going to be athletic enough to twist and torque and try to make some plays from positions where you're behind a guy or on his back shoulder. He's used to covering 6-foot-5 guys that can run."
When pressed on Smith's weaknesses, though, Martin didn't have a whole lot to offer, and neither did the scouts he has talked to.
"The feedback I'm getting from guys I've known a while that are high up on NFL brass as far as drafting say, 'we don't know what the kid doesn't have,' " Martin said. "Scouts are telling me, 'what are we missing?' I said, 'you're not missing anything.' And (Smith) has done nothing but help himself with the Combine and interviews."
In PFW's 2012 Draft Guide, Nolan Nawrocki wrote that Smith left his feet to make hits too often. Smith had an opportunity to respond to the report.
"Obviously, a competitor is going to disagree on the negatives. Early in my career, I left my feet to make a lot of tackles. If you watch this most recent season, my tackling and technique are much improved," he said. "I don't leave my feet unless I'm going to make the tackle. I didn't miss too many tackles this past year."
Smith then discussed another knock on him — that he absorbs too much.
"When I watch a football game and a running back goes up the middle and the safety brings him down, but the safety gets knocked back, they say he got run over," Smith explained. "To me, that doesn't make sense (laughs). At the end of the day, he tackled him. I don't think I get overpowered on the field. Sometimes I need to give more to get the ballcarriers down instead of going in there recklessly and throwing your body around.
"There's always room to improve. I'm not going to say I'm flawless."
Smith, 23, was a vocal leader at Notre Dame and has the qualities to "wow" an NFL team with his personality.
"Once you meet him and interview him, you'll like him 10 times more," Martin said. "(Teams) will say 'holy cow, he's everything you said.' That's how God made him. Very gifted, very genuine."
Smith's time at Notre Dame was atypical. The Fighting Irish went through two head coaches in his time in South Bend and not as many wins as the program was used to. Smith discussed what he learned from the experience.
"No matter what, I control what I do. Maybe you don't win as many games as you want or things don't quite go your way, but at the end of the day you can only control yourself," he said. "I was ready to be a leader on the team, where guys looked to me for an example, a word of advice, anything really.
"That whole process, the ups and downs, made me really appreciate the ups and fight through the downs, which at the end of the day makes you a better player and a more confident player."
Smith already might speak like a veteran, or even a coach, and Martin told an anecdote where Smith shined in an opportunity to coach — on the flag football field.
Martin asked Smith to coach his son's 11-year-old flag football team last winter. "I knew he'd do a great job and the kids would love him," Martin said. But the team's opponent that week had previously beaten Martin's team 66-0.
"I called him after the game and said, 'sorry, didn't mean to do that to you. I appreciate you helping me out when I'm on the road.' They lost 13-4," Martin said with a laugh. "I come home the next week, and they all wanted Harrison to coach them."
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