Time running out for ND's Smith to produce

Brian Smith's 71 tackles last year were the fewest by the top Irish linebacker since Jeremy Sample (70) in 1994. Andy Altenburger/Icon SMI

Brian Kelly didn't waste time this spring breaking down his Notre Dame players in order to begin a challenging remodel in South Bend. The target of his first sledgehammer blow, well, that was the surprise.

The first-year coach ripped into linebacker Manti Te'o -- one of the programs most heralded defensive recruits in recent memory -- who got off to a strong start as a freshman last fall and was recently named to the Bronko Nagurski watch list.

He wasn't that good, Kelly told reporters early in spring practice.

Notre Dame finished 82nd or lower in all three major defensive categories last year, and it's hard to imagine Te'o was the most to blame. To most observers, that wasn't Kelly's intent.

It was more of a well-timed and very public barb meant to inspire the extremely talented Hawaiian to tackle a larger leadership role. And it must have been an alarm bell for Brian Smith, the so-called voice of a Fighting Irish defense that struggled in 2009.

Smith, entering his senior season with 24 career starts to his credit, has never lacked emotion or electricity. It's just that Irish fans are growing tired of watching his high-voltage pre-game antics fade to triple-A-battery results on the field. As Notre Dame bled all over the canvas during an 0-4 finish last fall, opposing running backs chewed up 5.7 yards per carry, including plenty of real estate under Smith's management.

Perhaps Smith is the victim of schematic unrest, shifting back and forth between inside and outside linebacker as Notre Dame has gone from a 3-4 defensive set to a 4-3 and back again in three years. Or maybe the 6-foot-3, 234-pounder who loves to jaw has one comprised of glass. His 71 tackles last year were the fewest by the top Irish linebacker since Jeremy Sample (70) in 1994.

What's clear is that the son of former Notre Dame running back Chris Smith is running out of time to make the kind of impact expected of the prep star -- ranked by ESPN Recruiting as the No. 4 inside linebacker in 2007 when he joined the Irish.

Smith's move to the outside this fall, a more natural position, is one last opportunity to leave a substantial mark. With Darius Fleming lined up opposite Smith, Te'o and Anthony McDonald filling the inside, the group is capable of punishing opposing offenses and providing arguably the most stability of any other unit on the team.

For Smith, it's never been a question of capability, just consistency. With a lot of depth at the position, including Steve Filer and Kerry Neal, both of whom are moving from defensive end, there is plenty of talent chomping at the bit to fill in for Smith. The best scenario for the Irish, however, is that the senior finds the bite to match his nasty bark.