Something clicked with Notre Dame's defense at the end of the season. Perhaps it was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco sequestering himself from the media and focusing on a solution. Maybe it was senior linebacker Brian Smith realizing his time was running out and safety Harrison Smith, along with others, finding joy in the game again during backyard-style practices during the bye week.
"I'd say after the Tulsa game," linebacker Manti Te'o said of the Irish's extreme makeover. "I'm not sure what it was, but everybody just flipped a switch -- and I would say a switch that we didn't know we could flip. When we did so and we saw the outcomes, we knew we could take it to the next level."
Just when it appeared Brian Smith's career had leveled out, losing his longtime starting role, the 6-foot-3, 243-pound Kansas native made a boisterous comeback to the first team -- the high note coming against USC in the season finale.
"It means a lot that he stuck with me," Smith said of Irish coach Brian Kelly, who had high praise for his performance against the Trojans. "At the same time, I felt like everything I've been doing as of late is something I could have been doing all year. At the same time, I understand, hey, it's whatever the team needs. I just waited for my chance and when I got my chance I hit home on it."
Smith, who went from a reserve OLB to starting inside next to Te'o for the final four games, has 46 total tackles heading into the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl against Miami in El Paso, Texas. He registered exactly half of those tackles over the last four weeks, including a 10-stop performance against Utah. Smith pocketed two tackles for a loss, broke up four passes and forced a fumble in that same span.
Having lined up inside as a sophomore, Smith said the switch wasn't complicated.
"It wasn't difficult. I think I have good football intelligence," he said. "So, whatever position I'm playing ... I could play safety and I think I'd know pretty much what to do. ... You have to know defense, you don't just have to know what linebackers do. You have to defense and schematics. So, that helped me become a better football player. This year, when I went outside and back to inside, it was no drop-off -- I knew the calls, I knew the assignments, I knew the checks and I was able to step right in and do a good job."
He knows that, along with Te'o, Miami's offense might want to consider steering clear of the middle.
"Right. One thing me and Manti want to do is we want to strike fear in our opponents," Smith said. "Not by other things, other antics, but we want to strike fear in our opponents by smash-mouth football. We want to come downhill and hit you in the mouth. ... If we can do that and force Miami to beat us with throwing the ball, I feel like we'll have a good opportunity to win this game."
No matter the outcome against the Hurricanes, Smith is pleased with how he edited his final chapter in South Bend.
"It means a lot," he said. "I love Notre Dame ... from the bottom of my heart. I was joking with the guys in the linebacker room, talking about committing and all that, and I said I was committed to Notre Dame when I was 4 years old. I made my verbal commitment that day. I love this place and just to leave it in better shape then when I came in, it's a great feeling."