CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith watched last season as NFL tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham set receiving records at their position. Next season, it might be Smith's responsibility to stop them.
At 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds with a 4.57-second 40-yard dash, Smith boasts the physical tools necessary to blanket the tight ends who thrived in the NFL last season. As big targets in the passing game become increasingly prevalent, Smith has little trouble pitching himself to teams needing reinforcements in the secondary.
"It's something I've told teams I can do, and teams have told me they see me being able to do that," Smith said Tuesday in an interview with NFL.com. "With this new breed of tight ends -- really big, athletic and strong -- you have to have big guys who can run with them. That's something I'm confident I can do."
Smith's development into a top prospect for the 2012 NFL Draft is unsurprising, given he was highly recruited out of Knoxville, Tenn., and ended up at one of college football's most prestigious programs. But his early college years featured several position changes from outside linebacker back to safety, and more losses than are expected in South Bend, Ind.
Though the coaching change from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly was difficult for Smith, the move rejuvenated his career. Smith had been a regular starter in his first two years, but he emerged as a defensive playmaker in his first season under Kelly by grabbing seven interceptions.
"There were a lot of ups and downs," Smith said. "Going through a coaching change is always a big deal. You have to prove yourself completely to another staff. At the end of the day, I think it added up to me being a better football player."
The pressure that accompanies playing for the Fighting Irish proved integral for Smith. He shelved a once-meek personality to become the team's lone captain last season.
"You hear through recruiting that everybody watches Notre Dame," Smith said. "When you get there, you actually realize what that means -- all the times you're going to be on camera, all the pep rallies you're going to have to speak at. It really adds up. When I first got there, I was horrible at speaking and very nervous. After you do it all so many times, you get used to it."
Smith has seen his stock rise following strong performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. Though he has been mentioned as a potential first-round draft pick, Smith said he doesn't invest much emotion in projections.
"You hear different things from different places," Smith said. "It's all across the board. Whoever picks me at whatever pick, I'll be happy to be there."