With the proliferation of athletic pass catching tight ends in the NFL led this past season by New England's Rob Gronkowski, defensive coordinators are on the lookout for a safety/linebacker that can handle them in coverage. They want a player with the speed to run with those playmakers along with enough physical size to avoid getting outmuscled for position. There might be one such player in this year's draft pool.
Notre Dame's Harrison Smith is widely viewed as one of the top safeties in the draft class this spring. Though he has good size (6'2" 213) and speed (4.57 40-time), his best selling point is probably his versatility. In his first two seasons with the Irish, Smith played both linebacker and safety.
"I really feel comfortable at both spots," he said. "I did both things at Notre Dame, and there's not one I perform better in over the other."
His most productive season came as a junior in 2010 when he led the team in interceptions with seven and pass breakups (7) while contributing 93 tackles good for second on the squad. Though he had no interceptions his senior season he had a single-season best 10 PBUs.
"That's something that I think I'm good at, and that I can bring to teams, is the ability to cover tight ends man-to-man," Smith said. "It's something I did throughout my career. In practice I got to go against Kyle Rudolph, who was a high draft pick last year. So just being around good competition and going up against it every day in practice has helped me."
Smith believes one of the keys in neutralizing the athletic pass catching tight ends is body position. He feels the player in coverage needs to avoid being walled off or boxed out of position, which allows the tight end to make a play even when he's "covered."
"I feel like in certain schemes you're going to be asked to do certain things, and you're going to have help in certain areas, over the top or wherever," he said. "So you just have to know what you're doing, and at the end of the day I feel like that's something I excel at, so I'll be able to put my body in the right position to make an impact on that play."
Add in Smith's high football I.Q., which often had his coaches entrusting him with lining up the defense and making checks pre-snaps, and one can see why he's considered one of the top prospects at his position.
"NFL scouts didn't know if he was a linebacker or safety early on," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. "He had a lot of interceptions as a junior which was a big year for him. This year had a huge game against Michigan State early. He didn't intercept a pass, but was very active. I think he's viewed as a late one or early to mid-2."