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Cowboys 2012 Draft Prospects: Notre Dame SS-FS Harrison Smith

Harrison Smith helps bring down a Wolverine
Harrison Smith helps bring down a Wolverine

Just in time for you to catch a quick breath before the draft begins, our series on Valley Ranch invitees concludes with a look at Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith. The Irish safety was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, choosing Touchdown Jesus over Tennessee, Stanford and Auburn. After a redshirt year, he earned substantial playing time the next two years (2008-09) at both linebacker and safety. After his highly productive junior campaign (Smith finished second on the team with 91 tackles and led the Irish with 7 interceptions, good for fourth-best in the nation), he returned in 2011 as the squad's lone team captain, and again paced the secondary. Smith is the only player in school history to record at least 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups.

As his hybrid position at Notre Dame might suggest, Harrison is largely an in-the-box safety, a downhill defender with excellent straight-line speed and natural power. Against the run, he's fast in pursuit and closes quickly, with conviction. And he's not totally helpless against the pass; Smith is quick to diagnose routes and reads the quarterback well. Lastly, he's a fierce competitor, never giving up on plays and always going full speed. Wanna see? Here's a general highlight video; here he is plying his trade against Stanford and Andrew Luck.

At 6-2 and 213 pounds, Smith has size and length to go with his big-time athletic ability. Although he doesn't demonstrate elite hip fluidity, Smith stays smooth and under control. At the Combine, he shone in the position drills, playing the ball well, and showing he was a natural pass catcher. Oh, and he ran a 4.57 second 40-yard dash, bench-pressed 225 pounds 19 times, popped a 34-inch vertical jump, long jumped 10'2", and recorded impressive short shuttle (4.12) and 3-cone (6.63) times.

Despite his impressive experience and skillset, Smith is not a finished product. Most scouts point out that he's much better when facing the action; the former golden domer struggles with his back to the ball, and can be exposed when asked to turn and run with speed receivers down the hash. Moreover, he has difficulty breaking down and tackling in space, can be stiff and lacks an explosive first step. Hmmm, what a shocker: another potential first rounder with an incomplete game.

Where will Smith be slotted? Let's ask our scouting types to share their expertise, after the jump...

National Football Post (Wes Bunting): 2nd-rated SS; 78th overall

A thick, well built safety who looks the part, has a natural bubble and muscular upper body. Is very effective playing downhill inside the box and consistently gets early jumps on the ball, reads and reacts quickly and exhibits "plus" instincts as a run defender. Is routinely able to read the action quickly, close on the football and is a solid wrap-up tackler. Generates good power into contact working in pursuit, and once he gets his stride going, exhibits solid range off his frame and despite being a bit tight, he breaks down well on contact, using his strong upper body to wrap and runs his legs through contact. He understands angles, runs the alley well and routinely is able to wrap, even in the open field.

Those same instincts show up well in the pass game, as he's a bit of a ball hawk who has the ability to routinely get early jumps on the football. Exhibits impressive instincts, which routinely allows him to get early jumps on the football and put himself around the play. Looks a bit tight in his drop, causing him to get upright and he will get elongated/overextended with his footwork when looking to click and close, losing a bit out of his breaks. However, he's consistently moving toward the action before any defender and, once he collects himself, has a better closing burst than given credit for. Lacks great straight-line speed, but looks like a 4.55 guy who plays faster because of instincts. Exhibits good ball skills, taking proper angles toward the throw, and can adjust and make a play. Will play over the slot at times and does a nice job feeling routes develop around him, squatting on throws, keeping his feet under him, his base down and is much cleaner out of his breaks. Nevertheless, he lacks a great initial first step and looks tighter when asked to turn and run. He gets upright, struggles to get back up to speed quickly and lacks the type of second gear to make up for a false step.

: Isn't a guy you want to trust to run with receivers down the field. However, because of his solid natural range and instincts, I can see him getting over the top and making plays in a center field type role as an NFL strong safety.

CBS Sports (Dane Brugler): 2nd-rated SS; 47th overall

Strengths: Looks the part with prototypical size and strength for a strong safety … long arms with a filled-out frame. Extremely strong with natural power to make punishing hits. Physical striker who enjoys contact. Fills the run lanes hard and is a downhill athlete with an aggressive nature at the point of attack. Plays fast and closes in a flash with conviction and determination … fast in pursuit. Makes plays at all levels of the field and has strong hands to make shoe-string tackles. Read/reacts quickly and does a nice job interpreting the eyes of the quarterback. Big-time competitor and leader, never giving up on plays … goes hard at full speed. Very active pre-snap and shows natural awareness. Played both linebacker and safety in college with 47 career starts, showing steady improvement over his time in South Bend. Very productive at Notre Dame, leaving as the only player in school history to register more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass break-ups over his career … finished with 307 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 28 pass break-ups.

Weaknesses: An upright athlete who lacks ideal body flexibility and natural explosion to hold up in coverage or space. Has tight hips and struggles to turn and quickly change directions … plays stiff. Needs to be a more technically-sound tackler, often going for the knockout hit or forced fumble instead of wrapping up … hits too high and loses leverage, allowing ballcarriers to pick up extra yards. Plays overaggressive and moves too fast for his eyes … missed tackles in space and over runs plays. Has streaky instincts and doesn't see things as quick as he needs to. Still has a lot of developing to do. Needs to play under control and disciplined … too many unnecessary facemask penalties on his record. Has poor footwork and feel in man coverage and is too hands-on when left on an island … will attract pass interference penalties. Still made too many mistakes as a senior and didn't register an interception in 2011 after seven pick-offs in 2010.

NFL Comparison: Craig Steltz, Chicago Bears

Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): top-rated FS; 34th overall

Positives: Outstanding size with a strong, muscular build, big hands and good arm length. Good range to undercut routes and can cover ground quickly and close fast. Clocked the fastest 3-cone time (6.63 seconds) of any safety at the Combine. Plays smart and is a vocal, on-field leader. Confident, four-year starter. Lines up all over the field and is versatile enough to interchange and play in the box or over the top. Very good zone awareness. Outstanding tackle and ball production. Times up blitzes well and can rip off the edge (see Stanford). Tough and physical. Makes all the secondary calls. Very durable. Solid special-teams coverage player. Respected leader with strong character and leadership traits.

Negatives: Inconsistent hands—can do a better job tracking the deep ball. A bit stiff and leggy and can be exposed against speed and quickness in man coverage. Shows some tightness in transition and is a tick late to open up his hips. Will leave his feet and miss tackles in space—is best in confined spaces. Not an explosive striker. Lacks elite back-half range and could be stressed by NFL blazers.

Summary: Very consistent, savvy, instinctive, interchangeable safety with the competitiveness and football-playing temperament to command a secondary and factor readily against the run and pass. Offers comfort as the last line of defense.

ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 2nd -rated DS; 35th overall

Instincts/Recognition: Displays solid football I.Q. and field awareness and is constantly in sound position to make a play. Flashes ability to anticipate routes as well as the quarterback's release to get an early bead on the ball. Does a nice job of looking up crossers when aligned as a short-robber. Disciplined and rarely bites on play fakes. Makes a quick diagnosis and reaction in run support.

Cover Skills
: Displays adequate top-end speed and has the range to hold up as a half field defender. Makes a quick gather at the top of his backpedal and is at his best breaking forward. Does have some tightness in his hips and can lose momentum when having to make a sudden 180 degree turn. Can match up with TEs in man coverage but will have limitations against quicker slot receivers in this area.

Ball Skills: Instincts provide him with above-average play making ability. Takes solid angles to the point and is aggressive and strong playing the ball. Flashes ability to climb the ladder and separate the ball from receiver. Flashes above-average hand eye coordination but did not record an interception during the 2011 regular season after notching seven as junior in 2010.

Run Support
: Physical and aggressive in this area. Takes sound angles in pursuit. Closes quickly when running the alley and displays above-average body control to break down and secure the tackle. Flashes solid point of attack skills when aligned near the box and does a nice job of discarding blocks in a timely manner.

: Named a team captain as a senior. Accountable and a hard worker who leads by example. Has experience as linebacker, where he started nine games at SLB in 2009.

With the exception of Wes Bunting, our panel is in agreement: Smith is an early second day talent, who will likely be selected in the first fifteen picks of the second round. That's exactly the range the Cowboys should be targeting with the 45th pick, and that's where you'll find Smith on my "little board" when it comes out later today.

That said, this is a strange draft, where some positions (OG, CB, WR) are really deep and others, like safety are wafer-thin. I suspect that corners, because the position is so deep, might actually fall, as teams will think that they can get another good one a round or two later. On the other hand, there are only two top-level safeties. Applying the same logic, safeties will be overdrafted. If Mark Barron is rising as fast as pundits have been claiming recently he may be gone by the eleventh pick; following suit, Smith may be off the board in the last ten picks of the first round.

This situation, like so many others in the 2012 selection meeting, should be interesting...

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