SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Mark Pemberton hears about Chuck Martin saying how the world needs more Harrison Smiths. He hears about Brian Kelly touting Smith as a model for what a program should look like. He hears about Bob Diaco explaining to a reporter that his notepad isn't big enough to handle all of the good things the Irish defensive coordinator has to say about Smith.
And Pemberton isn't surprised by any of it.
"I think he's one in a million," said Pemberton, Smith's former coach at Knoxville Catholic High School. "He's just the type of kid who's a great leader naturally. Like everyone said, not very verbal with it, but just the example and work ethic he sets. Anybody would be proud to have him as a son."
Smith, Notre Dame's lone season captain, will lead the Irish in his final home game Saturday against Boston College. The fifth-year safety will do it with his actions, not his words. But make no mistake about it, if some of his fellow seniors are overcome with emotion — and if that leads to a sloppy start — he will be the first to get on them for it.
And they will respond on cue.
"There was this one week, I can't remember what game it was at, people were just being real lackadaisical in practice, and it was to start off practice," receiver John Goodman said. "It was definitely a big game — it might've been USC week — and he just got (ticked) off at people and started yelling and put people in their places. When he has something to say and needs to say something, then he'll say it to you. He's not scared to do that, but he only says what's necessary and he only says it when necessary."
Added Diaco, the Irish defensive coordinator: "I call him E.F. Hutton — when Harrison talks, everybody listens."
Martin, the safeties coach, arrived two years ago having heard nothing but bad things about Smith, who had moved from safety to linebacker and back in his first two years of action, 2008 and 2009. Smith had all these prep accolades but nothing to show for it since joining Notre Dame in 2007.
Then Martin saw him play.
"Probably five days into his first spring, I told him, 'You're gonna be a high NFL draft choice or I know nothing about football,'" Martin recalled. "And he looked at me, he'll tell you, he looked at me like, 'What the heck?' He was hoping to be a starter the next year.
"Honestly, I think I've done a good job coaching through the years, and I can give you a lot of kids that I think I can take a lot of credit for turning their careers around — this was a pretty easy fix. If they're all like Harrison, we all could coach."
Following Notre Dame's Week 1 loss to South Florida, Martin and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks took little shots at Smith for his play, hoping to bring out the best in their leader.
"They like to call me soft if I'm not playing physical enough," Smith said. "So that's something I don't take lightly when someone calls me soft."
The loss to the Bulls was Smith's first game since his three-interception performance in the Sun Bowl, which Notre Dame won to end 2010 on a four-game winning streak. Smith has since responded to the Week 1 loss, registering the second-most tackles (73) on the team, the most pass break-ups (nine) on the team and the most passes defended (nine).
As a true freshman Smith did not play, having to watch Notre Dame's historically bad 3-9 season in 2007 from the sidelines and at home. He has since gone through position changes, has seen coaching changes and has even chopped off his Clay Matthews-like hair, going with a buzz cut.
The Smith who takes the field Saturday may be harder to recognize than the one who entered college four years ago, but he will look more familiar than the Notre Dame defense will next season without him.
"I can't explain that," linebacker Manti Te'o said of what it's like to play in front of Smith.
Te'o then paused for nearly five seconds.
"I couldn't imagine anybody behind me besides Harrison," he added. "He just does everything. He does everything — I don't know, nobody can replace that guy. There are players that you put in there that you can do without. And then there are players that you need in there. Harrison Smith is one of them. Harrison Smith is one of those few players where if Harrison is out of the game, you can tell. You can tell, and it's a big difference. So definitely having him behind me helps me do what I do and helps the defense as a whole do what we do."