Rising Notre Dame WR Cameron Smith throws the book at injury woes

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — When football ends, Cameron Smith wants to find a cure for cancer or take a deep dive into stem cell research — or both.

In the meantime, the Notre Dame grad transfer wide receiver is working hard to make sure football doesn’t end anytime soon. Literally.

And it did almost end. Many times, because of a string of injuries that started his junior season at Coppell (Texas) High School — where he was a teammate of former Irish running back Cam McDaniel — and continued during his four years at Arizona State.

That’s why of the 60 career college catches he brings with him to ND this fall, 41 were clustered in a sensational sophomore season three years ago.

Four of those 41 receptions came during a 55-31 onslaught of the Irish in Tempe, Ariz., including a 43-yard TD pass in which he ran past cornerback Devin Butler and safety Max Redfield, both grad transfers themselves now, at Syracuse and Div. II Indiana (Pa.) this season.

The 2014 season hinted at the high ceiling most recruiting analysts whiffed on when Smith was a bashful high school senior whose severe shyness then, he admits now, added to the tepid interest in him nationally during his first recruiting process.

He was nowhere on Notre Dame’s radar then. In fact, only ASU, Houston, Iowa and North Texas extended offers during the 2013 recruiting cycle, despite a productive senior season at Coppell and 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash.

The 2015 season, one in which surgery on Smith’s right knee sidelined him for all 13 Sun Devil games, was actually the turning point. That’s when Smith became fully invested in trying to control his own destiny by learning more about his body.

“I started out as a math guy,” the honor student while at ASU said. “Once I got into college, I grew into the science field. And so I have my degree in biological sciences, which sort of stems over with body healing and everything like that.

“And then after my surgery, I got into body building, which also relates to like how the body adapts to training stimuli and things of that nature. That’s what got me into that.

“Knowledge is definitely power. You can’t fix everything. We’re all human. So it’s a day-by-day basis, just trying to deal with the pain, the bruises, the recovery — everything like that. But the knowledge definitely helps.”

So does familiarity with Notre Dame first-year offensive coordinator Chip Long and new Irish wide receiver coach DelVaughn Alexander. Long was on ASU’s staff three of Smith’s four years with the Sun Devils, Alexander all four.

But the 6-foot, 203-pound Smith, over the summer and through 11 training camp practice sessions, has pushed beyond the familiarity and excelled in his own right. On Saturday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Smith has begun to separate himself in the corps of 12 wide receivers who are competing for seven rotation spots Notre Dame will open the season with Sept. 2 against Temple.

“I would say outside of Equanimeous (St. Brown), he’s been the second-most consistent wide receiver, so he would be No. 2 on the list,” Kelly said. “As I said, EQ has a ticket on the train. (Smith) is getting close to punching his.”

Smith’s primary role would be to line up in the old Will Fuller spot, the outside receiver who has the most room to roam. But in Long’s tweaked version of the Kelly offense, receivers are asked to master other receiver positions, so Smith has worked in the slot as well.

“Actually he’s a little bit different than what I thought,” Kelly said of Smith. “I thought he was more of a take-the-top-off-the-coverage kind of guy — speed — but he’s got strong hands.

“As you have seen his physique, he’s very strong. And he’s got a mature presence about himself. So he’s exceeded my expectations from that standpoint.”

As for Smith’s own expectations of the Notre Dame experience?

“Expectations aren’t my thing,” he said. “I just go to work every day, and what happens, happens. Things can change. I could be (first team) right now or second string the next day.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity that I have. And if I’m not in (the rotation), then I hope I can contribute to the team by helping like (freshman) Michael Young, great player coming in. I’m very impressed with him. Just helping him out.”

He’s also been impressed with the science behind Notre Dame’s recalibrated strength and conditioning program.

“The way they track the numbers, the speed, the power — that’s definitely new for me,” he said. “Personally I can see the changes that are going over from week to week. I think that’s pretty motivating.”

Academically, Smith said he was always motivated by his parents. And he’d like to pursue his Ph.D. as time allows.

“He’s very attuned to his own body,” Kelly said. “He’s in the training room. He’s asking questions. Obviously, he’s doing this very intentionally in terms of coming here.

“He wants to be ahead of everything. He’s done a great job of working with our strength staff, nutritionists and certainly (trainer) Rob Hunt to put himself in the best position he can be.”

Smith said he only considered two scenarios as a potential grad transfer late this past spring — head to Notre Dame or return to ASU for a fifth season. Long and Alexander’s presence in South Bend was a huge factor.

“I knew the system I’d be walking into, the opportunities I’d have and I knew they’d have belief in me having seen me perform,” he said.

And those coaches also knew Smith was too stubborn to let football end — well, not without a fight.

“It’s a battle every single day,” Smith said of trying to keep ahead of the injury bug. “But I don’t want to live with regrets. Like sitting on the couch, saying, ‘I gave up.’ I’m just trying to make it.”

Notre Dame grad transfer wide receiver Cameron Smith (left) faces off against fellow receiver Chase Claypool during a recent practice drill. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)