SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Smith entered fall camp boasting the most previous starts and the most active vocal chords. By early September, vultures were circling the senior linebacker's career.
The 6-3, 243-pound Kansas native failed to impress new coach Brian Kelly, whose lack of enthusiasm for the defense's emotional leader initially appeared to be a motivational ploy. After all, Kelly had already criticized fellow linebacker Manti Te'o and star receiver Michael Floyd for not playing up to their full potential in 2009.
But it was Smith, who had started 24 games dating back to his freshman season, who began fading into the background.
"In my mind I'm [thinking], 'Oh, I'm being picked on, they don't want me to play,’ " he said. "On the inside, yeah, I was frustrated. On the inside, yeah, I'd feel like I was being mistreated."
Smith was being replaced on the outside by Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming, both of whom had spent more time at defensive end the previous year. He didn't know why.
"I didn't know how to take it," said Smith, who had 71 tackles last season. "But hey, [Kelly] says he's a Brian Smith fan now and that's all that matters.”
Nine games into the year, injuries had taken their toll on both sides of the ball. Safety Jamoris Slaughter missed considerable time, nose guard Ian Williams was lost for the remainder of the season and inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese was struggling to get back on the field. Smith was inserted next to Te'o in his absence, starting the last three contests and salvaging a senior campaign in the process.
Smith now has 41 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, one interception and three pass breakups. Not to mention a healthier perspective.
"Most definitely," he said with a floodlight smile. "Anytime you get a chance to end the season off on a high note, it writes a good ending to any story. I'm just excited to play in a meaningful role, especially against a great opponent in USC.
"The guys in my class ... whatever one of us isn't, someone else is. Add us all together and we make just one unit, one person, one mind, one soul. There's been some tough situations that's brought us closer -- sometimes guys getting in fights here or there, guys getting angry at each other here or there. But at the end of the day, it's only brought us closer."
It's brought the defense out of a considerable funk. Over the last 11 quarters, Notre Dame hasn't given up a touchdown. During victories over Utah and Army, the Irish allowed a combined total of just two field goals.
"What we've also gotten is player development," Kelly said. "It's becoming a better defense. I think I said this pretty clearly, that we could not be a championship program until we improved our defense. We've improved to that level where we can feel good about where we're going."
Smith, who wept alongside his parents following the team's sixth win at Yankee Stadium, which made the Irish bowl eligible, never gave up on his "brothers" or defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
"That was one of the most special moments I will ever have in my life," Smith said. "If I had a brother in real life, there's no situation that I'd check out on him. There's no situation I'd check out on these guys either. I just found out that the team is more than any one person can do."