SOUTH BEND – Chris Smith went shopping the day his son Brian committed to Iowa in 2006. He filled their living room in Overland Park, Kan., with Hawkeyes sweat shirts, T-shirts and bumper stickers.
“The moment that he committed to Iowa, we wanted to get the bad taste of Notre Dame out of his mouth,” Chris said. “We wanted to surround him with Iowa gear. We were going to move on.”
Chris played football at Notre Dame and since Brian was a child talked to him about what it would be like when Brian went to South Bend to play football. But with Notre Dame not offering his son a scholarship, the dream appeared dead.
The dream remained dormant into the beginning of 2007. Then Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis hired defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, and Notre Dame switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.
Smith didn’t fit well in a 4-3. In a 3-4, though, he was ideal.
Notre Dame contacted him – and Smith had a difficult decision.
“When it came back around that Notre Dame was going to offer (scholarship), at first, my ego got in the way and I was like ‘They didn’t want me there, I’m not going to come back,’ ” Smith said. “But then I sat down and was like ‘Come on, I’ve wanted Notre Dame my whole life. Let’s go.’ ”
When the Smiths called Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to tell him Brian was going to visit Notre Dame, Chris Smith said Iowa pulled its scholarship offer and his son chose the school he wanted in the first place.
By the end of his freshman year in 2007, Smith became one of the Irish’s best defenders, making 25 tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown against Boston College.
In the spring, he was the most productive playmaker, forcing the coaching staff to move him from outside linebacker to middle linebacker.
The position change was easy because of the initial reason Notre Dame backed off Smith: his flip-flopping at St. Thomas Aquinas from inside-to-outside linebacker.
“We knew we wouldn’t be putting him in an unnatural position,” Weis said. “Because we had already seen him play in there and play at a high level.”
It also helped his roommate and mentor had been there before. Maurice Crum Jr. played outside linebacker when Weis first arrived in 2005. By last year, he teamed in the middle with Joe Brockington.
“If he’s not sure of it, I’m like his safety blanket,” Crum said. “If I say it, then it’s OK. If he kind of whispers it and then I say it, he’ll get louder. He’s still growing.
“The biggest thing is his confidence.”
It’s a long way from two years ago, when Smith figured he’d be in Iowa City, playing in the Big Ten.
“I could imagine myself at Iowa,” Smith said. “But in the back of my mind and in my heart, I’d always be a Notre Dame guy.”